How Mushrooms Could Solve Plastic Pollution

It’s the largest organism on the planet. Liquefying plastic to make its food. It’s not a plant, it’s not an animal – it’s the future.

The mushroom.

Science-based startups in the UK and US have discovered huge potential in the humble mushroom. Turns out fungi can make much more than a tasty soup; they can be made into packaging, insulation, paper and even furniture! London’s Sebastian Cox have turned it into stylish lampshade.

This technology relies on the root of a mushroom’s power: mycelium. This underground network of branching fibres works like a secret social network, allowing the plants to communicate and share nutrients. As it consumes its food, the mycelium grows more and more thread-like filaments, called hyphae. This growing process also makes mycelium extremely efficient; it takes seven days to grow a piece of packaging, and only 40 days for it to break itself down to fuel more. 

Founded in 2007 near Albany, New York, Ecovative is a small company with mush-room to grow. Winning grants by the US EPA, the National Science Foundation and the US Department of Agriculture – as well as over $750000 in green innovation prizes – Evocative’s fungal fabrication is set to revolutionise the way we consume single-use plastic. Their product, a sustainable, biodegradable and naturally-derived plastic packaging alternative, begins its life on the compost heap.

Crop wastes are broken down by mycelium, forming a web of hyphae similar in structure to Styrofoam. Like conventional single-use plastics, it is durable, light and moisture-proof. No wonder the idea of mushroom packaging is growing on corporations: IKEA have replaced all their polystyrene with it, London’s Sebastian Cox has turned it into stylish lampshades, and UK-based startup Seedlip Spirits relies on it for their bespoke non-alcoholic drinks packaging.  

However, the mushroom magic doesn’t stop there. The spores of creativity have spread further afield, into the waste management and recycling sector. Over 50 new plastic-eating mushroom species have been discovered in the last two years alone. For example, in 2017, Chinese agroforestry scientists discovered a fascinating new species in the landfills of Islamabad.

This fantastic fungus can eat up chunks of polystyrene in 2 months – enough to package a brand new widescreen TV! Almost identical mycelium behaviours have been recognised in common household species, such as oyster and split gill mushrooms, suggesting this technology has applications beyond the Pakistani junkyard. 

According to the World Bank, humanity currently produces over 2 billion tonnes of solid plastic waste per year (2020). Coca-Cola alone produces 108bn bottles of waste a year, a fifth of the world’s single-use output. Imagine if just one multinational corporation adopted mushroom materials like those produced by Evocative, or harnessed the plastic-eating power of the mycelium to dispose of their single-use waste. 

With mushroom plastics, the world is our oyster. 

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