Can mushrooms solve the plastic crisis?
The scale of the problem
We may think we’re doing our bit by recycling our plastics every week, but the global plastic prob-lem is not going away. Recycling systems worldwide are overwhelmed — whether it’s high plastic generating countries such as the UK and USA, or countries that receive excess plastic from those countries when it’s exported.
Of course, there is one ‘arch villain’ in this story and that is the plastic bottle. It may have trans-formed the beverage industry and changed our habits forever, but it’s also caused a global crisis that future generations will have to deal with. It was engineer Nathaniel Wyeth who first patented polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles in 1973. But what started as brilliant innovation, has turned into an ecological nightmare, with some sobering statistics to match:
• Globally, more than 1 million plastic bottles are sold every minute.
• It takes at least 450 years for a plastic bottle to completely degrade.
• In the US, only 30% of plastic bottles are recycled, compared with Norway which recycles 97%
• Bottled water requires up to 2,000 times the energy used to produce tap water.
So, what’s the answer? Well, it basically comes down to two problems: how to reduce our reliance on plastic bottles, and what to do with them after we have used them. And the second category is where mushrooms could really help.
Mushrooms to the rescue?
The vast fungi kingdom could play a vital role in tackling the planet’s problem with plastic, with sci-entists around the world reporting incredible results. Mushrooms are the most widely known fungi, but they can also be microscopic single-celled yeasts that cannot be seen by the naked eye.
A report by Kew Gardens showed a study on a waste site in Islamabad revealed a fungus in the soil was quickly breaking down plastic. It can take decades, even hundreds of years for some plastics to degrade, but the fungi in Islamabad took just two months to biodegrade polyester polyurethane (PU) plastic. The fungi digests by secreting enzymes and absorbing the dissolved organic matter back into cells. It’s encouraging research, and there’s stories like this from around the world. In 2011, Yale students made headlines when they discovered a fungus in Ecuador that has the ability to digest and break down polyurethane plastic, even in an air-free (anaerobic) environment. That means it might even be effective at the bottom of landfills.
There was also an interesting collaboration between Utrecht University and Katharina Unger of LIVIN Studio, where edible fungi was grown around plastic. As the fungi grew, they would break down and digest the plastic material. Incredibly, the fungi remained completely edible even after digesting the plastic, and was quoted as tasting “sweet with the smell of anise or licorice”.
Sadly, the problem is vast and more research and funding is needed to make this new area of re-search a commercially viable reality. But there is real hope about this exciting starting point and the potential for fungi to be a genuine help in the fight against plastic waste. It may be early days, but one thing’s for sure — it’s time for the humble mushroom to come out of the dark and get the recognition it deserves.