Fungi Eating Plastic Research Nonprofits
Plastic is a problem. Period.
In 2019, we produced 368 million tons of plastic globally. By 2025, plastic production is expected to reach about 600 million tons of plastic per year. Is that difficult to wrap your head around? It’s a giant number—making it a giant problem.
Once plastic is created, it takes 400+ years to decompose. And even then, most plastics aren’t biodegradable. Instead of biodegrading, it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, becoming microplastics.
These microplastics are a huge concern. They’re all over the globe, reaching all kinds of environments—from our soil, to the deepest parts of the oceans, to Mt. Everest.
Plastic is pervasive. It’s now so widespread that microplastics are a part of the food chain. Animals ingest plastic from polluted environments, or they eat another animal that had eaten plastic.
A recent study even found microplastics in human blood.
As we face this issue, one species has arisen as a potential solution: Fungi.
What we know as mushrooms are only the tip of the iceberg. The mushroom is the fruiting body of the larger fungi organism. The main fungal body stretches hundreds of miles underground in the form of mycelium. Mycelium appears to be the fungal root system, but it’s so much more.
This discovery is raising lots of questions. Are microplastics staying in our bodies? How harmful are they? Do they lodge themselves in organs? And if plastic is in our body, how much more are they affecting the rest of our environment?
We’ve put ourselves in quite a pickle. Plastic production continues to grow—reaching over 8.3 billion metric tons since the 1950s. Only 9% of all plastic ever created has been recycled. Only 12% has been incinerated.
The majority of plastic we’ve created still exists in some form. Plus, plastic production keeps on growing. Year after year. At first, plastic was revolutionary—it was a million new ways to package, build, and create. Now, after many years of mass production, we’re looking for solutions to tackle the plastic pollution crisis.
Mycelium is the communicator and the nutrient-sharing system. It communicates with other fungal bodies and even other plants. Forests are thick with mycelium, as fungi are integral to the health of an ecosystem. Mycelium can provide nutrients not just to fungi, but to other plants as well. Mycelium is amazing—and versatile.
More and more, mycelium is appearing in new innovations. From fashion to building to packaging, fungi look to be an incredible solution.
Fantastic Fungi Findings
So what about waste? Fungi have been found to be successful at absorbing oils, metals, and yes, even plastics. These incredible creatures have so much potential. We need to learn more about them.
Research suggests that many strains of fungi are able to “eat” plastic and turn it into nutrients. Companies such as Carbios, which is researching plastic-eating enzymes, are seeing success. The lead biotech at Biohm, Samantha Jenkins, had success testing the breakdown of plastic with a mix of fungi and bacteria.
PET plastic (polyethylene terephthalate) has been the easiest to break down. This suggests that there could be a 100% life-cycle management of PET plastic—leading to less plastic production and a smaller carbon footprint.
And these findings don’t stand alone. Samsara, BOTTLE Consortium, and The University of Edinburgh have found similar results on the fungal breakdown of plastics. These potential solutions offer hope for the future.
But more research has to be done…
Enter Ocean Blue Project.
In 2014, Ocean Blue Project carried out an experiment in Corvallis, Oregon. The goal was to clean up polluted streams. Burlap sacks inoculated with mycelium were placed in the streams. The study found that mycelium filtered out the toxins from the stream. How crazy is that?
The mycelium sacks were most effective at cleaning up slow-moving water. They even removed E.Coli and other dangerous bacteria from the streams. With enough patience, who knows where fungi will lead us.
Now, Ocean Blue Project (OBP) is taking on a more in-depth experiment. We want to see if fungi can indeed “eat” plastic without causing harm to the environment or to the fungi. OBP is starting this experiment with support from Sum Of Us and NASA.
Our new experiment will be focusing on DNA samples from locally found fungi on the Oregon Coast. They will use the DNA to identify what strains of fungi are doing the best job digesting plastic. Understanding how certain strains react to plastic ingestion could be revolutionary.
A major goal of the experiment is to find a way that bioremediation can happen anywhere on the globe. Bioremediation is a way to remove pollutants from an environment using microorganisms, such as bacteria or fungi. If we can find a way to use bioremediation on a large scale, we could decrease the amount of waste in the environment.
The experiment will take place over at least 2 years. Year one of the experiment will focus on observations in the natural world. They will identify fungi that assist in biodegradation, and what strains are most effective. Year two will focus on innovating with fungal cultures and more lab work.
This research will work with novel isolates of plastisphere ecosystems. Novel isolates are fungi already breaking down pollutants and turning them into nutrients. We are trying to understand what is already working and what we can build on.
The hope is to create substantial enough research based on observation. Once we identify novel isolates, research will focus on how ingesting plastic affects fungi and their ecosystems.
These findings aren’t new. We are aware of plastic-eating fungi, bacteria, and even bugs. But in order to have a structural shift in our society, we need more in-depth research that can lead to real change. We need to understand how fungal breakdowns of pollutants will affect our ecosystems. As we tackle this huge waste issue, we must be careful not to create even more problems.
The Ocean Blue Project experiment is working towards that—holistic research. This research must consider everything—humans, fungi, and everything else. We hope that the experiment will pave the way for an easy process that anyone can use to restore the environment.
Imagine a world where gasoline doesn’t run off the road into a drain that will pollute water sources. Instead, fungi-inoculated burlap sacks are at the bottom of every stop sign. The fungi would be able to absorb the oil run-offs, as well as other toxins. This would allow for clean water, more nutrients for the soil, and less waste in our environment.
Imagining a better world is step one toward solutions. Imagine all the ways these breakdowns could change the world! With these solutions, we are looking for a societal shift.
What Can We Do Right Now?
In the meantime, we’re still fighting climate change and pollution wherever we can. At Ocean Blue Project, we work to clean up streams, oceans, and beaches. OBP has a goal of removing 1 million pounds of plastic, while also planting native trees and shrubs.
This is where you can help. We can’t clean up the world’s beaches all by ourselves. We need you. You can join an OBP beach clean-up near you here. Here’s to an innovative and sustainable future!