Could Plastic-Eating Mushrooms Solve Humanity's Plastic Problem?

Name a more iconic duo than hungry mushrooms and 9 billion tons of plastic... We'll wait.
Derya Ozdemir

From being used as construction material to biofuel, mushrooms hold incredible potential and could potentially aid humanity in getting rid of a problem that's been brewing for decades: Plastic. 

Since the mass production of plastics began in the 1950s, humans have created 9 billion tons of plastic, and this creates a crisis that's not easy to tackle since plastic takes more than 400 years to degrade. Those used by the people of the '60s still exist in some form, and with only 9 percent recycled, only 12 percent has been incinerated.

This has lead scientists to search for alternative methods for plastic reduction, and one solution that could aid humanity might be hidden in fungi. Scientists have discovered mushrooms that eat plastic over the years: Some mushroom species have the ability to consume polyurethane, which is one of the main ingredients in plastic products.

Some mushrooms have an appetite for plastics 

In 2011, Yale students on a class research trip discovered a rare mushroom called Pestalotiopsis microspora in the Amazon rainforest. The team of researchers stated that this fungus not only can grow on polyurethane but also use it as its one and only carbon source. The fact that it could digest and break down plastic even in anaerobic environments was exciting since it could be used at the bottom of landfills.

Further experiments on the speed of decomposition showed that Pestalotiopsis microspora cleared plastic faster than Aspergillus niger, which causes harmful black mold.  

In another study in 2017, scientists discovered a different mushroom called Aspergillus tubingensis that eats plastic in a waste disposal site in Pakistan. In two months, the fungus could colonize the plastic itself and secrete enzymes that break down polyester polyurethane into smaller pieces.

As part of a project, which was a collaboration between the microbiology faculty at Utrecht University and Katharina Unger of LIVIN Studio, an incubator prototype was created to grow edible fungi, Pleurotus ostreatus, also known as the oyster mushroom, and Schizophyllum commune, aka the split gill mushroom, around plastic. As the fungi grow, they would break down and digest the material. This way, the team was able to turn plastic into an edible form that tasted "sweet with the smell of anise or licorice."

There is also "mycoremediation", which is an experimental technique that harnesses mushrooms' natural ability to use enzymes to break down foreign substances. This cheap, effective, and environmentally sound technique has been used to decontaminate the environment by getting rid of some contaminants from damaged ecosystems. 

So why aren't they used more often?

One problem is speed. For example, on the topic of toxic material removal, federal regulations require the removal of 100 percent of targeted contaminants pretty quickly. While scientists know that mushrooms can break down all kinds of substances in nature, it is not yet known the speed of the breakdown, or how effective it is for that matter. This makes industrial scaling hard to achieve.

Moreover, since the scientists working on the issue are not really producing "products" that the masses sought after, the field doesn't attract much investment and funding can be hard to come by.

Still, the possibilities are nearly endless with fungi. From cleaning up oil spills to converting pesticides and herbicides to less harmless compounds, they've been used over the years. Should the field attracts more attention in the future and more studies are made, some environmental crises that await the world in the future could perhaps be averted. 

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