We eat mushrooms, mushrooms eat our trash

Americans have constantly been criticized for our excessive wastefulness. Our mothers have told us since birth not to be wasteful, but do we listen? As the number one municipal waste generating country, accounting for nearly 8% of the world’s municipal waste generation in kilograms per person [1], it seems that we don’t. To go one step further our waste problem is an energy problem, as wasted materials means wasted energy – averaging at 23 MMBTU/ton [2].

54% of America's waste is discarded to a landfill without being recovered

54% of America’s waste is discarded to a landfill without being recovered [3]

How can we reduce our wasted energy and reduce our landfill impact? The most accessible option has always been consume less and follow the all-encompassing reduce, reuse, and recycle methodology. Sadly, this doesn’t seem to cut it and it’s harder for people to break wasteful habits than we might like to admit to. There are solutions, however, in the surprising form of a mushroom. In this blog entry I will start by discussing our landfill problems and some bio based plastics that have already caught wind. I will then discuss how mushrooms can address our concerns relating to our wasted energy in landfill form, and conclude with how this fungus could bring other surprising energy solutions.

First off, let’s take a look at what makes up our landfill waste. Of all of the United States municipal waste, just over half is discarded to a landfill [3] – representing roughly 3 trillion MMBTU of wasted energy [2]. The largest portion of this landfill waste (~40%) comes from packaging [4], i.e. plastic peanuts, Styrofoam, and other garbage that transport valuable Amazon treasures to your home.  The plastic just going into plastic waste accounts for 2.5% of the world’s oil consumption [4]. Although 2.5% may not sound like a lot, this is just under the fraction of oil the entire country of Germany consumes [5]. It seems that we need to find either some way to recover these lost plastics or find a new material.

One solution that seems to be picking up steam is bio-based “plastic” packaging. The compounds polylactic acid (PLA) and polyglycolide (PGA) are bio-plastics based from corn and sugar, respectively. It turns out companies are beginning to realize they can save big time by turning to these plastics as they take 65% less energy to manufacture than normal plastics, with the added perk of 68% fewer greenhouse gases [6]. From America’s perspective we consume 200,000 barrels a day to generate plastic packaging [6], so switching to a bio-based product may ease some pressure off the oil pump. The mega chain Wal-Mart alone is making a dent in oil consumption, as switching to PLA from conventional plastics equates to saving 800,000 barrels of oil per year [6].

Another company that seeks to eliminate Styrofoam and packaging peanuts is Ecovative, using alternative methods to “grow” packaging materials. That’s right – they grow it. No papers, cardboards, or annoying plastic pellets necessary. Stemming from an engineering senior design course, the founders of Ecovative learned to harness the power of mushrooms. Ecovative has found a way to use a species of mushrooms, along with agricultural byproducts that have no economic value, to grow packaging materials [7]. The final product takes about one week to make and contains a dense package with 8 miles of mycelium per square inch [7].

Ecovative makes packaging materials from mushrooms and farming byproducts [7]

But how reliable is this new material? Would we be able to rely on mushrooms to safely transport our precious Amazon packages? As it turns out – yes we can. This company uses the mycelium, which is essentially the root structure of the mushroom that is made up of a sturdy fiber network. Some species of mycelium grow to be tough enough to dull a saw blade [8], bringing a revised meaning to the term “magic mushrooms”. Ecovative has realized how useful mushrooms and other farm byproducts can be and are currently developing fire resistant, sound dampening, and eco-friendly insulation materials for buildings and cars using their patented mushroom technology [7].

Ecovative has plans to construct building insulation from mushroom mycelium [7]

So it seems like we have futuristic biodegradable packaging under our belts, but what about all of the trash we’ve already stockpiled around the world? Again, we can turn to mushrooms. One brave Yale professor, Scott Strobel, and his research team recently came back from an Ecuadorian rainforest with a species of mushroom named pestalotiopsis microspora [9]. It turns out that this fungus can solely survive by consuming a material that can be found in everything from McDonald’s kid’s meal toys to furniture – polyurethane. There are two especially important aspects about this finding, the first being that polyurethane is a polymer that mostly cannot be recycled – permanently gluing it to the “discarded-municipal-waste-that-can’t-be-recycled” statistic mentioned earlier.  Finding a way to remove this chemical from our waste would help chip away at the 12% of our trash that is made up of plastics [3]. The second important part of this discovery is that mushrooms live in dark, anaerobic conditions which perfectly describe the type of environment that can be found at the bottom of a landfill [9].

As promised, I will conclude this post with how mushrooms and feedstock have the capacity to not only reduce our energy intensity wasted in the landfill and eat our trash, but also help produce energy. Earlier I talked about mushrooms that exist off of our trash, now I’ll talk about mushrooms that eat wood and grass. Research has shown that a strain of mushroom, agaricus bisporus, quickly decomposes the cellulosic walls of organic materials, reducing it to the sugary base for ethanol [10]. This is the part in the decomposition we have trouble with, but it seems that nature has found a way to counteract its own sturdily built cellulose walls. This finding might come to the delight of many U.S. politicans, who have mandated that 350 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol be produced by the end of 2022 while very little has been produced to date [11]. It is still unclear as to whether cellulosic ethanol production will really take off since its energy return on investment is relatively low, as reported from 0.69-4.4:1 depending on inputs being taken into account [12]. However, it seems that mushrooms could help us raise that number to something more economically feasible.

If we are to shrink our landfills and cut down on wasted energy we can’t simply rely on our next generation to consume less – we need real solutions that can integrate into our daily habits. These habits may include integrating mushrooms into our life more than just our diet. However, it goes without saying that further research is required to determine the true viability of bio-plastics and the various shroom-solutions to our energy and landfill problems.


[1] http://www.nationmaster.com/red/pie/env_mun_was_gen-environment-municipal-waste-generation

[2] http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=8010

[3] http://www.epa.gov/osw/nonhaz/municipal/pubs/msw_2010_rev_factsheet.pdf

[4] http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/12/121204081138.htm

[5] http://www.nationmaster.com/red/pie/ene_oil_con-energy-oil-consumption

[6] http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/plastic.html

[7] http://www.ecovativedesign.com/about-our-materials/how-its-made/

[8]  http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1957474,00.html

[9] http://gizmodo.com/5880768/amazonian-mushroom-eats-indestructible-plastics

[10] http://biomassauthority.com/mushrooms-enhance-production-of-ethanol-and-biodiesel/

[11] http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/intelligent-energy/mushroom-power-scientists-find-fungi-that-could-give-next-gen-biofuels-a-boost/9312

[12] http://www.sciencemag.org.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/content/312/5781/1746.long



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2 responses to “We eat mushrooms, mushrooms eat our trash

  1. rydelarosa

    I’m doing my video on a similar topic, specifically the issue of food waste in the U.S. In your post, you said that a strain of mushroom can consume polyurethane and a different strain can consume wood and grass. Can the latter survive off any organic matter (such as food waste) or only certain things like the wood and grass you specifically mentioned?

  2. timsmith204

    Mushrooms are commonly referred to as the decomoposers of the environment, and they are known for their ability to break down organic matter. As far as food material goes, I’m not totally sure but my imagination says why not? This is from one of the articles that I cited: “Agaricus mushrooms are a specialized decomposers of wood, leaves, and organic litter that are frequently found in forest soil.” So I’m not sure about this particular strain, but maybe another strain could. I think it would be awesome if they could. If you end up finding anything on it would you mind posting a link or two here?

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