What do you call a room with no windows or doors? A mushroom. Humour aside, these tiny powerhouses are no joke.

If you have not already heard, multiple reports have been released throughout the last few years on a troubling topic: our recycling programs are failing.[1] For quite some time, our recyclables were collected from our home and brought to a sorting depot. From there, the different types of waste were shipped overseas to processors. A major change occurred when China and Hong Kong implemented the National Sword policy. This policy took these countries “from buying 60 per cent of the plastic waste exported by G7 countries during the first half of 2017, to taking less than 10 per cent during the same period a year later.”[2] The problem that recyclers in North America are facing now is that despite growing investment in local processing facilities, they are having difficulties combatting growing residual rates (i.e. the proportion of recycling received that ends up in a landfill).

In an article by Ross Polk of Green Biz, Polk emphasized the necessity of strategies for and investment in existing technology to correct the root cause of the issue. Ultimately, two solutions were proposed: 1) Circular design, or producing, consuming, and reusing products more sustainably; and 2) Green chemistry, where biological chemicals and materials are identified for use in manufacturing to eliminate toxic pollutants.[3] Remember that excellent mushroom joke? The “Morel” of this story is that mushrooms may play a key role in the future of both solutions.

In 2011, Yale students made headlines with the discovery of a fungus in Ecuador, Pestalotiopsis microspora, that has the ability to digest and break down polyurethane plastic, even in an air-free (anaerobic) environment—which might even make it effective at the bottom of landfills.[4]

Since 2017, around 50 more species of fungus have been discovered, each with an ability to degrade different, specific types of plastic.[4]  Given the nascency of these findings, it is unlikely we will see a mass-deployment to address our growing landfills, though a biological source with the potential capability to do so is worth investigating further. However, this is not the only incredible feat achieved by mushrooms.

In 2018, a research team from the National University of Singapore “found that a natural bacterium isolated from mushroom crop residue can directly convert cellulose to biobutanol, a biofuel.”[5] Other groups and companies all over the world have been discovering new uses for mushrooms and their near-supernatural root structure, mycelium. Not only can it be used as a high-grade leather alternative, it has also been used in the production of flooring and acoustic paneling, as well as furniture like chairs and lamps.[6]

Another application can be seen by Ecovative, a materials-science company that is challenging the plastics industry by using mycelium “to formulate a new method to produce materials able to replace various types of products, including petroleum-based expanded plastics and particle board made using carcinogenic formaldehyde.”[7] This has allowed them to create sustainably-produced packaging to replace Styrofoam, create car parts, and even launch a line of meat alternatives.

On the topic of food, mushrooms are an incredible source of nutrition and have been used for medicinal purposes through history. All varieties are low in calories and fat, contain a unique blend of non-nutritive plant substances, and “are also recognized by chefs for their ability to create savory rich flavors called umami,”[8] also known as the fifth basic taste. Studies have also found that mushroom consumption has led to positive benefits for both cognition and gut health.[8]

The variety of benefits and uses associated with mushrooms is astonishing, and the opportunity for positive impact is apparent. With the influx of discoveries and applications over the past few years, the industry has described this trend as the Mycelium Revolution.[9] Hopefully there is not ‘mush-room’ left before it grows into mainstream culture and practice.

 

Austin Krausert | MBA, BComm., ENV SP
Manager of Operations

 

[1] Is Canada’s recycling industry broken? – https://globalnews.ca/news/5199883/canada-recycling-programs/

[2] Why the word’s recycling system stopped working – https://www.ft.com/content/360e2524-d71a-11e8-a854-33d6f82e62f8

[3] It’s time to trash recycling – https://www.greenbiz.com/article/its-time-trash-recycling

[4] 50 New Plastic-Eating Mushrooms have Been Discovered in Past Two Years – https://leapsmag.com/plastic-eating-mushrooms-let-you-have-your-trash-and-eat-it-too/

[5] Greener and cheaper technique for biofuel production – https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/04/180406100547.htm

[6] Materials: Mycelium – https://a-d-o.com/journal/mushroom-mycelium-material

[7] Growing alternatives to petroleum-based packaging – https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/case-studies/growing-alternatives-to-petroleum-based-packaging

[8] The Nutrition Source: Mushrooms – https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/food-features/mushrooms/

[9] The Mycelium Revolution Is Upon Us – https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-mycelium-revolution-is-upon-us/

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