Why Mushrooms Will Save the World

Mushrooms are some of the most underrated organisms in the world. In school, you would always learn about them on the side, just the things that decompose organisms, an unglamorous job. However, they are the catalyst to sustainability, overall reducing material waste down to zero and protecting the health of many humans. The best part is that they can do this while still being the most funky-looking plant-like things. 

First, let us acknowledge some of the wild things that fungi are capable of doing. Honey mushroom mycelium (the roots of mushrooms) in Oregon holds the record for being the largest organism, 2385 acres large by area. Like honey mushroom mycelium, there are many unique mushrooms out there. For instance, Lactarius indigo is an edible mushroom that produces blue milk when cut, and Mycena chlorophos is a species of bioluminescent mushrooms that emit a pale green light. 

Before mushrooms became more acknowledged for sustainability, mushrooms were famous in the medical world for their many health benefits. Specific mushrooms were known to be able to cure a range of diseases. The lion mane mushroom, for example, has been scientifically proven to help with neurodegenerative diseases and other ailments in the nervous system as well as the immune system. Mushrooms are used for different purposes, as well. Psilocybin mushrooms give mind-altering experiences similar to drugs, making their consumption illegal in the USA and other countries. 

In the current age of working towards a more sustainable world, mushrooms help with a wide range of issues. The first to tackle is the issue of oil spills. When mycelium is grown in an area saturated with oil, the mushroom can grow and flourish using the oil for nutrients. With the mushroom population increasing, it invites bugs to join the environment created, bringing birds and even more life, turning the previously polluted area into a thriving ecosystem full of biodiversity. 

Next, they have helped with packaging waste issues. Packaging material heavily consists of plastic, and with online shopping becoming common practice, it is becoming more and more crucial that we implement sustainable practices. That is why a company in Europe has started growing mycelium into molds for packages as filler. The process begins with finding the fungi that have properties most similar to other packaging materials made as a single piece (not like bubble wrap or styrofoam peanuts). Then the mycelium would grow in a mold in a specific shape and be put in an air dryer for a couple of hours to ensure the organic material is dead and will not grow in the package. After the items arrive at the recipient’s home, they can toss the packaging into their backyard, where it will take at least 30 days to decompose. 

Lastly, fungi have even made their rounds to the fashion industry with sustainable leather in Indonesia. Adi Resa Nugro used mycelium to create a material that can mimic leather without producing as much carbon emissions. The company also employs vertical farming techniques to grow the mycelium which means less usage of water and space. They also make sure to be resourceful and feed their mushrooms sawdust, using something that would otherwise just have been considered a waste product. While the final leather has the advantage of being completely compostable, it can stay durable for many years and is in higher demand recently due to the leather industry being a known contributor to carbon emissions. 

While today I have boasted about the benefits mushrooms can have in our future, I would like to mention a few other innovations coming to life recently. First, waxworms can break down plastic by consumption due to certain enzymes present in the worms’ gut. A downside, however, is that it is still unknown if waxworms digesting plastic causes health issues for them. Therefore, this discovery can turn into an ethical problem if they are to be heavily relied on in the future for plastic pollution clean-up work. Nevertheless, scientists are learning more about how to implement this science into their engineering. Another revelation is the use of SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast), a byproduct of kombucha. SCOBY is produced on the top layer of any kombucha container if left long enough and contains bacteria and yeast. This layer can be dried to make a leather-like material (similar to mushroom leather) used in clothing durable for up to 6 months. Suzanne Lee has called this process of using natural alternatives bio fabrication and hopes it can become a staple in fast fashion and the world. 

Overall, mushrooms and fungi are a life form that is fascinating to learn about since they are capable of so many things, including helping to solve one of the biggest problems plaguing the future of the Earth. Using mushrooms, which are much easier to access but are yet so versatile, can let our current society embrace biodiversity and understand how each person can reduce and measure their ecological footprint. By opening up your eyes to all the potential uses of mushrooms, hopefully, we can anticipate even faster progress to creating a world that knows of plastics no more and instead uses sustainable and compostable alternatives as to the standard.