From plastic waste to intensive fossil-fuel practices polluting natural environments, we humans have created a lot of mess on our planet. Innovative scientific research has been experimenting with fungi as a potential method of cleaning up our waste. Specifically, mycelium has the potential to help us eat-away at some of the waste we’re leaving behind.  

What is mycelium? 

Mycelium is essentially the invisible foundation of mushrooms. It is an underground web-like network of threads called hyphae, that exist in soil and moisture-rich environments. Mycelium consumes its food externally, and uses enzymes to digest whatever surface or substrate it is growing on by converting the chemicals into nutrients. At this stage, mushrooms would usually grow. Before this happens, humans can intervene and alter the growth of the tissue to encourage it to build different structures.

Detail of mycelium, taken from The Guardian.

1) Mycelium packaging

I’m sure we’ve all felt the frustration of purchasing an item and unboxing it to find unnecessary plastic packaging that is now our responsibility to dispose of. It’s well known that polystyrene is devastating for the environment – made from petroleum it’s heavily polluting and not biodegradable, taking thousands of years to break down. Fortunately, there could be a solution; introducing, mushroom packaging!

The amazing thing about fungi packaging is that it only requires two ingredients to manufacture. One of which being agriculture waste material that is up-cycled into the raw material for the packaging, and the other being mycelium. Natural crop fibres that are of no further use to farmers are given a new lease of life, transformed into packaging in less than seven days. Manufacturing the packaging is simple; myceliums natural process that occurs in nature is replicated. Mycelium’s fast growing network of roots consumes the agricultural fibres and grows into the desired mould for the packaging. After a week, humans can intervene in the process to stop mushrooms from growing. The end result is packaging that has similar properties to plastic, without the pollution.

Check out this quick video to see the process in action:

Mushroom packaging produces up to 90% less carbon emissions than plastic. No energy intensive processes are used for production and there’s no need for light, water or chemical additives. The packaging has a shelf life of 30 years if it’s kept in dry conditions and when added to soil it will compost within 30 days – making it 100% compostable. Mushroom packaging is already on the market and brands such as Dell and Ikea have committed to using it as a replacement to polystyrene. It’d be great to see the replacement of plastic packaging with mushrooms, then we can say goodbye to the guilt of what happens to our waste once we dispose of it.

2) Fungi can gobble up plastic waste, including PPE

Masks have helped to keep us safe during the pandemic, and are used everyday by healthcare workers to maintain sterile and safe working conditions. Despite being entirely necessary, many people have expressed concern about the pollution of disposable masks. After all, we’ve probably all seen them littered over the past few years. But, some good news – innovative new research has suggested that fungi can break down masks in as little as two weeks

Most of the breakdown occurs before the mushrooms are formed, with the waste item (in this case disposable masks) being fully absorbed by the fungus within a few weeks. The fungi consumes the plastic and converts it into organic matter. Essentially, mycelium is able to gobble up plastic waste and grow mushrooms in its place – which is pretty cool. 

Of course, this doesn’t just apply to masks. Scientists have been working with plastic-eating mushrooms for a while now, after the discovery was first made by Yale University students. Whilst we need to move away from manufacturing single-use plastics in the first place, fungi is an excellent way for us to clean up the plastic that is already stacked in landfills. 

3) Fungi can regenerate toxic environments

We’ve likely all seen the devastating effect that toxic events such as oil spills have on the environment that poison soil, water, vegetation, animals and people alike. The mind boggles at how recovery from such events is even possible, with the truth being that conventional processes of removing pollutants are expensive, energy-demanding and of limited effectiveness. But, mycelium could provide the answer. 

Mycoremediation is the name given to the practice of using fungi to remove waste from the environment. Enzymes in mycelium consume the waste and in its place a mushroom grows. Experiments show that when oil saturated soil is infused with mycelium, the pollutants are broken down and replaced by mushrooms. As a result, insects are attracted to the area and lay eggs, which provides food for birds who then bring in seeds; restoring a habitat where a toxic wasteland once was.

Watch this video to see mycoremediation in action!

Mycelium’s ability to filter and breakdown toxins is not limited to specific toxins or ecosystems; fungi has also been used to decontaminate water systems by removing the toxic heavy metals present in the water. As well as this, it’s hypothesised that reintroducing fungi species to a fire-affected area could kick-start ecosystem recovery. Research suggests that actively reintroducing fungi species to scorched environments can help to rapidly regenerate native vegetation and enhance the survival of endangered plant species threatened by fires.

Compared to traditionally used decontamination approaches, fungi is a comparatively cost-effective, eco-friendly, and effective method. The current speed of the breakdown of toxic materials isn’t known, so fungi isn’t commonly used in regenerative initiatives at the moment. Using fungi on a large scale to decontaminate areas is a long-term goal, but the work is certainly underway.

Food for thought

Although not all of these uses for mycelium are approved to be used widespread, it’s certainly exciting that their potential usage is in the pipeline. Whilst these innovations shouldn’t encourage us to continue creating waste at the same rate we have been doing, it’s good news for tackling the damage we’ve already done. By utilising fungi’s magnificent qualities, alongside calling upon world leaders for climate action such as de-funding fossil fuels and banning single-use plastics, we can help to make a dent in our waste and climate crises. 

Mushrooms aren’t only delicious, they might just be one of our greatest assets at combatting the climate crisis. The idea is certainly food for thought…

Be curious