End Plastics

Mushroom Magic: Fantastic Fungi Fight Plastic Waste

Say hello to the mushroom. You have probably met already. The word mushroom refers to fleshy fungus fruiting structures (try saying that five times fast) which can have both culinary and pharmaceutical uses. Mushrooms are undoubtedly popular pizza toppings and feature in a whole range of dishes but they also can be potent poisons, medicinal compounds, and an all-around superfood. Some mushrooms are even being used to create bio-construction materials! 

This fantastic fungus is known to have a wide range of uses and scientists have long studied both the negative and positive effects of mushrooms. While people have munched on mushrooms for eons, researchers at Yale University and the Ecuadorian Museum of Natural Sciences have now discovered mushrooms can do some munching of their own…on plastics!

Plastic pollution continues to contribute to a global crisis affecting all life on Earth. One of the major problems with plastics is that they’re extremely toxic and persistent. Polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), also known as “forever chemicals” have become integrated into the world’s food and water supply. Roughly 400 million tons of plastic waste is estimated to be produced around the world annually. Plastics are choking people and the planet. 

Digging Deeper

Mushrooms are a powerful potential ally in tackling the problem of plastic pollution and waste. The term bioremediation refers to the ability of microorganisms to safely break down organic and inorganic contaminants in the environment. Certain types of microbes are capable of consuming and converting various types of waste and pollutants. Bioremediation is already being used in conjunction with other processes to combat the toxic effects of oil spills. Mushrooms have also shown great potential in conjunction with other bioremediation efforts. So, if you’re not already a fan of this fabulous fungi, then this is a great reason to be!

Pestalotiopsis microspora, Pleurotus ostreatus, and Schizophyllum commune are three top tier contenders for the title of best bioremediator. Pestalotiopsis microspora is a type of endophytic fungus discovered in the Amazon rainforest in 2011 which contains bacteria that can biodegrade and break down synthetic plastic polymers. It can survive in both oxygenated and oxygen-free environments, which makes it an ideal candidate for tackling compacted plastic-laden landfills.

Pleurotus ostreatus is an oyster mushroom that preys on fungi-feasting microorganisms called nematodes. This mushroom is an assassin that paralyzes its microscopic prey and converts them to nutrients. Pleurotus ostreatus also has properties which have shown potential in rapidly increasing the degradation rate of oxo-biodegradable plastics, a type of plastic which breaks down when exposed to oxygen. Similarly, to how it catches its prey, the enzymes created by this mushroom can also speed up the degradation process of certain types of plastics.

Schizophyllum commune is a split gill mushroom with promising pharmaceutical properties which have shown it to be an aid to cancer treatment. It’s also considered a delicacy and is a sought-after ingredient throughout different parts of the world. The Schizophyllum commune has also displayed a similar ability to slurp up surplus plastic through the process of biodegradation.

Power-up and Join the Fight Against Plastics!

Plastics are in the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe. Dangerous microplastics are in our own bodies, blood, and even in human breast milk. Plastics aren’t just polluting wildlife, soil, air, oceans, and drinking water…they’re polluting our bodies, too. Effective recycling and renewable resources present additional strategies to combat and reduce plastic waste, but this isn’t enough. Plastics do long-lasting damage to the environment, and it’s easier to produce them than it is to destroy them.

Mushrooms can potentially pack a punch against plastics, but they aren’t a singular solution to the problems plastics pose to the planet. Without real change and action, like drastically reducing plastic production and pivoting to  sustainable alternatives, these are stopgap measures. As a planet, we need to do much more. One way you can join the fight against plastic production is to join us at EARTHDAY.ORG! Learn more about our efforts and how you can help with our 2024 Earth Day campaign, Planet vs. Plastics. Sign the petition for the Global Plastics Treaty, develop environmental consciousness, and learn more about how you can help keep our planet clean!