Mushrooms are one of the planet’s most effective natural recycling systems. Can they help us fix our landfill problem?

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Plastic Waste. Wikipedia

by Giles Crosse

Mushrooms are one of the planet’s most effective natural recycling systems. Can they help us fix our landfill problem?

In 2008, a group of Yale undergraduates went on a trip to the Amazon to study bioremediation – a natural waste disposal process, which mushrooms are particularly good at. They expected to find fungi that can break down plastics. What they didn’t expect to find was endophytes that can do the trick in anaerobic conditions – that is, without oxygen. The findings were published last year in the journal ‘Applied and Environmental Microbiology’.

It’s good news, because that’s the prerequisite for dealing with landfill waste. Products use many different plastic types, making a meal of recycling processes. UK waste agency WRAP says 4.5 million tonnes of plastics are discarded each year.

Now, the hope is that these fungi can be harnessed to break down complex plastics (in particular, the synthetic polymer polyester polyurethane) in landfill conditions. But it’s still early days. Professor Scott Strobel, who supervised the team says, “We are not yet prepared for commercial roll out and need more research in laboratory settings.”

Sam Harrington has an eye on the progress. He’s the Environmental Director at Ecovative Design, a start-up based in New York that offers a home-grown alternative to plastic-based packaging. The company harnesses mycelium, a fungal material which grows in the dark, with no watering, and no petrochemical inputs. For Harrington, breaking down industrial wastes – as well as avoiding them in the first place – could be a new business plan.

“Fungi are often called a key part of nature’s recycling system, since they can break down tough compounds that no other organism can,” says Harrington. “Perhaps in the future we’ll be using this Amazonian discovery to turn waste plastic into more environmentally responsible materials.”

This article originally appeared in Green Futures, the leading magazine on environmental solutions and sustainable futures published by Forum for the Future.