Long before there were trees, Earth was overrun by giant mushrooms. Fungi first showed up over a billion years ago as three-metre tall fungus fingers that dominated the landscape, while plants have been around for a paltry 700 million years debuting as scruffy shrubs. A billion or so years on, the humble ‘shroom is an unlikely champion in the war against plastic waste thanks to the discovery of a plastic-eating mushroom.

The Marvelous Plastic-eating Mushroom 

In the 100 years since it was invented, plastic has gone from being a wondrous time-saving material to a modern-day scourge, clogging our landfills, killing marine life and swirling around our oceans in massive garbage gyres the size of countries. When Yale University students found Pestalotiopsis microspor in the rainforests of Ecuador in 2011, they discovered the first fungus that not only has a voracious appetite for plastic but can thrive in oxygen-starved environments like landfills. They taste good too. Austrian designer Katharina Unger teamed up with scientists from Holland’s Utrecht University to develop the Fungi Mutarium,  which uses pods of agar gelatin that nourish the fungus with sugars and starch until UV-treated plastic is stuffed into the middle. It takes a few months for the fungus to fully digest the plastic, leaving a puffy, mushroom-like cup with a sweet taste and a liquorice smell. Scientists foresee households owning a smaller-scale version to recycle their plastic waste and community recycling centres with larger systems. 

The root system of mushrooms, mycelia, is intricate and can extend for kilometres. The largest living thing on Earth is the mycelial network of a honey mushroom fungus in Oregon in the US that covers 8.8 square kilometres just inches below the forest floor and estimated to be around 2,400 years old. Every autumn, the ‘Humongous Fungus’ pops hundreds of clusters of beautiful honey-yellow mushrooms from the forest floor. Over 90% of plants are intertwined with mycelial networks that are intimately woven into their whole lifecycle. Symbiotic fungi can even link plants into an intricate network known as the “wood-wide web,” which shares water and nutrients. Plants in turn ‘feed’ carbohydrates to fungi. 

Using Mushroom as a Plastic Alternative

In the 1967 smash hit The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman’s 21-year old college grad Benjamin is cornered at his graduation party by a well-meaning friend of his parents who offers advice on a future career with just one word: plastics. Ironically, nowadays, that word could well be mushrooms. In March 2021, British fashion designer Stella McCartney debuted a black ‘leather’ bustier top and trousers made with mycelium.  But McCartney isn’t the only designer making clothes from mushroom fibre. Big brands like Adidas, Lululemon and Hermés have announced that they will be debuting clothing lines made from mycelium, a more palatable leather alternative then the infamous ‘pleather’ derived from plastic. 

Mushrooms are also being grown as alternative building materials in Seattle. The duo Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre are making mushroom material a multi-purpose, mainstream product. After earning degrees in mechanical engineering and product design in 2007, the pair came up with a new process for binding particles using mushrooms. That year, they founded a company called Evocative Design, and soon after the then-26-year olds brought out flip-flops that are 100% biodegradable. They followed with Greensulate, an organic, fire-resistant board made of water, flour, oyster mushroom spores and a mineral called Perlite. Bayer and McIntyre say the product will be as good as most insulation brands out there because it is as fire-resistant as commercial fibreglass insulation. The company calls its growth process ‘programmable biology.’ In a week to 10 days, miles of thin, super-grippy mushroom fibre are grown that can be molded into nearly any shape. “The products literally grow themselves. In the dark. With little to no human contact,” says McIntyre. Evocative Design has even taken a new turn on meat substitutes by growing slabs of mycelium, which can be cut into bacon. 

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The Untapped Potentials of Mushrooms

Mushrooms can even replace nasty herbicides. Irish botanist Brian Murphy discovered in 2015 that growing little-known fungi called endophytes inside plants helps defend them against disease but doesn’t damage the plants. Instead of buying seeds coated in an insecticide containing neonicotinoids, which decimates bee colonies, farmers would buy seeds containing endophyte spores, which would then make their way inside the crop and bolster tolerance to drought, insects and pathogens, a technique called ‘bio-priming’. The discovery is a boon to farmers who are battling herbicide-resistant pathogens. Endophytes also help plants grow in inhospitable conditions where few organisms can survive. The endophytes have been tested at the Athabasca oil sands, Antarctica and at 21,000 feet on Mount Everest. 

The original mushroom entrepreneur, Paul Stamets, is an unlikely expert. He started his career in the forest as a logger, not a scientist. In his ground-breaking book Mycelium Running, Stamets writes lyrically about his passion, describing mycelium as “the neurological network of nature,” a “sentient membrane” that has “the long-term health of the host environment in mind.” In 1980, he founded a company called Fungi Perfecti that sells mushroom products and develops applications of mushrooms for environmental remediation. In 1997, Stamets had a hunch that mushrooms could soak up oil, so he teamed up with Washington state researchers to conduct experiments using mushrooms to break down diesel-contaminated soil. They found that after two months, the mushrooms had removed 97% of a heavy chemical that other methods had consistently failed to break down. After the 1986 Chernobyl accident, researchers were astounded to discover some species of fungi that thrive on radioactive particles. “It’s damaging to plant and animal tissues but these fungi somehow capture it [uranium] like plants capture sunlight and use it to power their metabolism,” wrote Jim Wells in Sound Consumer. When the Deepwater Horizon oil spill coated the Gulf of Mexico, Stamets designed fully biodegradable ‘mycobooms’ made of hemp, a rot-resistant natural fibre in seawater environments. The booms were filled with straw and mycelium to absorb and digest oil on the ocean surface.

Plastic-Eating Mushroom and Ecuador’s Development Dilemma

Back in Ecuador, the plastic-eating mushroom defines that country’s development dilemma. Caught between the Scylla of wholesale rainforest destruction for oil wealth and the Charybdis of endless generations of grinding poverty for preserving the rainforest for free, Ecuador’s leaders have only been able to look on impotently as wealthy Western corporations, especially pharmaceuticals, make billions from products derived from the Amazon. In 2007, then-President Rafael Correa tried to monetise Amazon preservation with a unique and ambitious plan to persuade rich countries to pay Ecuador for a moratorium on oil exploration in the remote Yasuni National Park, which was declared a world biosphere reserve by the UN in 1989. Correa had sought USD$3.6 billion in contributions, half the estimated $7.2 billion in proven reserves in the park. But he lifted the moratorium in 2013 after Ecuador had raised just $13 million. 

The lure of oil wealth in Ecuador divided two sisters who were inseparable as children in the remote community of Sana Isla on Ecuador’s Napo River. Three generations ago, the Kishwa tribe of Sana Isla were still using blowpipes and had only recently made contact with the outside world. The tiny community is in one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. Scientists say a single hectare in this part of the Amazon at the intersection of the Andes, Equator and the Amazon basin contains a wider variety of life than in all of North America, including the plastic-eating mushroom Pestalotiopsis microspor. But underneath all that life lies close to a billion barrels of oil. When Ecuador’s biggest oil company, Petroamazonas, made an offer in 2011 to start seismic surveys in their homeland, Blanca Tapuy and her sister Innes were at loggerheads over the offer, with Blanca saying she is willing to die to stop its progress and Innes passionately asserting that petrodollars are vital for the future of the community. The company eventually backed down in the face of bitter opposition. 

American oil giant Texaco arrived in Ecuador in 1964. When it left nearly 30 years later after being bought by Chevron, it had pumped 1.5 billion barrels of oil from Ecuador but left behind what came to be known as the ‘Amazon Chernobyl’, a 1,700-square-mile environmental disaster zone where it admitted to dumping 72 billion litres of toxic water which invariably ended up in the water supply, and gouging 1,000 unlined waste pits out of the jungle floor. Incredibly, Chevron lost the inevitable lawsuit and assembled a team of 2,000 lawyers to ferociously appeal the $9.5 billion penalty, vowing “…to fight until hell freezes over, and then we’re going to fight it out on the ice.” 

While the legal combat raged, cancer rates skyrocketed and thousands of hectares of unspoiled ground have been poisoned, threatening the nearly 4,000 kinds of plants documented around Sana Isla, including Ecuador’s wondrous plastic-eating mushroom.