Plastic. We’re drowning in the stuff.
It’s in our homes, oceans, waterways, soil and even our food. So it’s little wonder why so many people believe it’s ‘too little, too late’ to win the war on plastic. But maybe they haven’t heard of the incredible mushroom that can eat plastic. It’s called Pestalotiopsis microspore – and it was first discovered in 2011 by a group of students from Yale University. On a research trip in Ecuador, they stumbled across the fungus that can digest and breakdown polyurethane (a type of plastic material).
But here’s the thing: It doesn’t just eat plastic – it thrives off it. And since this initial discovery, scientists around the world have continued to discover more types of fungus that can break down plastic.
So do we still have a shot at winning the war on plastic? Or has the train really left the station (while we’re standing on our plastic-infested platform)?
Well, these plastic-eating mushrooms might have our answer.
The Plastic Problem
Chances are, if you’ve landed on this article you’re already well aware of the plastic problem.
You’ve heard the scary statistics. You know, the ones like: on average Australians use 130kg of plastic per person, per year. Or that only 9% of our countries plastic is recycled. Or that 130,000 tonnes of plastic will wind up in our oceans and waterways.
But thankfully, we’re not here to ruffle your feathers with statistics. We’re here to bring hope in the form of a humble mushroom. The type that eat polyurethane – a plastic material that exists in various forms (and can be found virtually everywhere… Such as furniture, cars, clothes, appliances and adhesives).
Say Hello To The Plastic-Eating Mushroom
The Amazon Rainforest is one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet! It’s home to a bewildering range of organisms – and plastic eating mushrooms are no exception.
In 2011, 20 undergraduate students from Yale University took a trip to Ecuador for an annual research trip. They were studying biophysics and biochemistry when they came across the Pestalotiopsis microspore fungus. Fascinatingly, they found that the mycelium of this fungus could survive purely on a diet of polyurethane plastic. And better yet, it can break down this plastic in an air-free environment. This is super exciting, as it means the mushroom could even thrive at the bottom of landfill.
With this discovery, the students and a professor from Yale University gained permission from the Ecuadorian government to transport the plastic-eating mushroom back to the USA. They then began further studies, separating the enzymes in the fungus that allowed it to eat plastic to take a closer look. Then, they published their promising findings here: Biodegradation of Polyester Polyurethane by Endophytic Fungi. In particular, they investigated the mushroom’s activity under aerobic (with air) and anaerobic (without air) conditions. And Pestalotiopsis microspore passed both tests with flying colours.
Quite frankly, we’re a little bit excited by these findings. But remember, it’s still early days. There aren’t enough studies to start spreading plastic-eating mushroom spores all over the planet (yet). But more on that in a minute.
How Many Plastic-Eating Mushrooms Are There?
As you can imagine, the plastic-eating ‘shroom in the Ecuadorian Amazon sparked a lot of curiosity. And since that time, more scientists have started to explore the topic.
In 2017, Pakistani and Chinese researchers discovered the Aspergillus tubingensis fungus. Extraordinarily, they discovered this fungus in a garbage dump in Islamabad – just munching away on plastic… Minding its own business. And turns out, this fungus specialises in breaking down polyester polyurethane (the kind of plastic you find in packing foam).
But wait, there’s more! Since 2017, scientists at Utrecht University in the Netherlands have discovered up to 50 plastic-eating mushrooms. One of them being the famous Oyster mushroom.
And we know what you’re thinking… But aren’t Oyster mushrooms for eating? And you’re right, they are. Research shows that there are several species of plastic-eating mushrooms that can later be consumed by humans. Put simply, the fungus replaces the plastic with a type of edible agar. So you can be rest assured there is no plastic present in the final product.
So it’s clear that we’re not just talking about a solution to the plastic problem. Have scientists also discovered a nutrient-rich, fast-growing food source? A way to turn trash into snacks?
Sign us up!
So, What’s The Catch On Mushrooms That Can Eat Plastic?
It’s easy to get carried away in all the excitement of this research – after all, it could change our planet for the better. But there’s always more to the story.
And the truth is, a lot more research needs to be done before we can start releasing mushroom spores into our garbage bins. You see, there are questions over whether fungi can eat enough plastic to offset our global plastic use. And there are also questions over whether there will be any adverse effects from releasing this fungus. Can it potentially harm other aspects of the environment in the process?
Only time (and more studies) will tell.
But this isn’t the first time that mushrooms have entered the spotlight for their cleaning abilities. They can also be used to clean up waterways, oil spills and soil in a process called mycoremediation. In fact, more and more scientists are recognising the potential for mushrooms to decontaminate our planet and break down plastic.
So maybe we do have a shot at winning the war on plastic, after all. And who knows, we could create an incredible, abundant food source while we’re at it.
Plastic-eating mushrooms don’t tickle your tastebuds? At Natura Mushrooms, we have a range of non-plastic eating varieties (they feast away on brown rice instead – which once fermented, has enormous health benefits). Yep, mushrooms aren’t just a solution for the planet – they also have incredible properties that can boost overall health and wellbeing. Discover our range.