Plastic waste is becoming an increasingly hot topic. Garbage patches in the oceans, micro plastics, and other such issues are now standard headlines.
Therefore, companies dealing with plastics are introducing new bio-alternatives to the plastics market in order to make their brand more eco-friendly. Lego recently announced that it will be spending millions to find a bioplastic alternative to their currently petroleum based bricks. Coca-Cola on the other hand announced that they have already created a plastic bottle which is 100% bio.
Bioplastics typically refer to plant based materials. For example the bottle created by Coca-Cola is made from sugar cane. Although companies are advertising these solutions as better for the nature, they have also received some criticism. After all, making plastics out of food crops like sugar cane means that we need arable land for that, a lot of it. This is problematic because it often means that the crops used for bioplastics are either away from our food supply, or that forest is being cut down to create new fields.
However, now there is also another material which may have the potential to be the ultimate solution for plastics. As weird it may sound, mushrooms, or more broadly speaking fungus, may just help us to get rid of the existing plastic waste, as well as prevent us from creating more.
At the moment there are several projects where researchers and companies are studying the qualities of different fungus and how these can be used for plastic related solutions. Here are the two main solutions that are tested and used at the moment.
Plastic eating fungus
The ability of fungus to munch away plastics were first discovered by a group of Yale students visiting the Amazon rainforest few years ago.
For this particular specie, Pestalotiopsis Microspora, your brand new sneakers are a buffet because it feeds on polyurethane, which is a common plastic used on anything from clothing to cars to condoms.
What even better, this fungus is able to do the process without air which means that it could be used in landfills, where lack of light and oxygen often stop any biodegrading.
More recently in the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, a professor Han Wöller and his team have studied two other fungus species’ ability to digest plastics. Their attempt is to actually create food out of fungi that has been fed with plastic.
While it seems to be working, there are yet no long-term studies on the safety aspects. Maybe best to wait for more information before starting to feed your plastic waste to these champs in the hopes of feasting on a big stew of mushroom soup.
Plastics made out of fungus
So once these fungus have eaten away our plastic waste, we also need a solution that prevents us from creating more, right? No problem, mushrooms are here to help again.
In the US, a company called Ecovative is using the mycelium of a mushroom, meaning the part that grows underground, to create a material that resembles Styrofoam. Yet unlike styrofoam, thi material is completely biodegradable when disposed to nature.
The mycelium can feed on almost anything organic which means that this process also provides sustainable way of disposing food waste.
According to a researcher and designer Maurizio Montalti who works with fungus plastics in the Netherlands, in the coming years fungus solutions could replace traditional plastics in all kinds of plastic solutions.
To learn more about these funguses and how they are used to make plastic materials, check out this short video: