Earth Day: Mycelium vs Plastic

Earth Day: Mycelium vs Plastic

Samuel Brooks on 19th Apr 2024

This year (2024), the theme of Earth Day is ‘planet vs plastics’. So we’re here once again blowing the trumpet of mycelium and its fruiting bodies: mushrooms because yes - you guessed it - mushrooms are an effective solution to the problems plastic pose. This has been well-known for some time now, since the start of the century at least. Most are aware that the environmental challenges that we face will not be solved by one thing but by many. There is no single, miracle, super-cure, but mycelium is as close to such magic as one could find. After all it has been facilitating and restoring natural environments for long before humans conceived of such a notion.

How can mushrooms reduce plastic waste?

Mushrooms decomposing plastic
Some mushrooms can accelerate plastic decomposition

Mushrooms are able to play a very active part in reducing plastic waste. They produce enzymes that catalyze the breakdown of complex polymers found in plastics. Amongst the heroes, studies suggest that under certain conditions Aspergillus Niger can degrade some plastics [1] and Pleurotus Ostreatus could decrease the half-life of green polyethylene [2] and polystyrene.

What else can fungi do to help with the plastic problem?

Clothing made from mycelium
Clothing made from mycelium

Of course we also need to focus our attention on the problem at the start of the chain, i.e. finding a way to produce less plastic, otherwise we’ll be locked in catch-up mode forever. So what is plastic currently being used for? Two-thirds of consumption is dedicated to packaging and building products [3].

Researchers and innovators are increasingly harnessing the natural properties of mycelium to develop biodegradable packaging materials as an eco-friendly alternative to traditional plastics. By combining mycelium with agricultural waste such as corn husks or rice hulls, sturdy and sustainable packaging solutions can be created that degrade harmlessly in the environment after use.

In Seattle, US, mushrooms are gaining traction as alternative building materials. In 2007 two graduates started a company, Evocative Design, that designed a process to help bind particles using mushrooms using the discovery to insulate buildings [4]. Elsewhere if you look beyond the strictly commercial projection, you can see a swirl of environmentally conscious innovators eager to provide solutions for consumers concerned with the reneged promises and inaction of governments and regulatory bodies. The likes of which include fashion designers using mycelium as fabrics to make garments [5].

Earth Day FAQs

What is the origin of Earth Day?

Earth Day was conceived in the 1960s, in a time when environmental issues were stirring in the public consciousness. Inspired by the student anti-war movement, Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin (USA) envisioned a day dedicated to environmental activism. The first Earth Day was observed on 22nd April 1970.

Historically what has been the significance of Earth Day?

The first Earth Day saw millions of people take to the streets to protest environmental degradation and advocate for change. This historic event led to the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the passage of key environmental legislation, including the Clean Air Act (updated in 1970), the Clean Water Act and later the Endangered Species Act (1973).

Why is plastic so bad?

Plastic on the beach
Plastic is washed-up on coastlines

Since the 1950s plastics have been touted as a cheap and versatile material leading to its production rocketing. In the last two decades alone it has more than doubled [6], bringing an unparalleled convenience to everyday life. And where is the problem I hear you say? Unfortunately they are multiple. Here are three:

  1. 1) Firstly production of plastic is done through a process called polymerisation or polycondensation using amongst other things non-renewables such as coal, gas and crude oil.
  2. 2) One of the reasons plastic is so useful as a resource is that it doesn’t decompose quickly - in fact it takes more than 400 years for most plastics and up to a 1000 for some! So while most other materials are broken down and recycled by the earth, plastic remains plastic for longer than usually required; creating an issue of what to do with it when it’s no longer needed. This has resulted in a huge amount occupying everywhere that you can think of. Our streets, woodlands, rivers, oceans, landfills, homes.
  3. 3) This leads to our next issue: microplastics. Microplastics are tiny particles of plastic debris in the environment originating from the disposal and fragmentation of consumer goods and industrial waste. They are being inhaled and ingested, and are widely linked to forms of cancer. They’re found in placentas and all throughout the biosphere, affecting ecosystems and the delicate balance of nature.

So just how bad is the problem with plastic waste?

In 2022 the National Library of Medicine [7] stated:

recent estimates report that 12,000 million tons of plastic waste will have been accumulated on the earth by 2050.

That sounds a lot but how can we put that number into context? Well apparently according to the National Geographic: studies suggest that we are on target to meet the prediction that by mid-century, per ton there will be more plastic waste in the oceans than fish [8]. With 0.5% of all plastic waste finding its way into oceans [9], this is a quite frightening thought painting a dizzying reality.

How can I participate this Earth Day?

The best way to feel better about any problem - however big - is to get active. So here’s 4 suggestions of what you can do.

  1. Be healthier: check out 7 ways to avoid eating plastic, e.g. vacuum your home more frequently.
  2. Use a refillable drinks container: I’ve been buying bottled water for years but writing this article I realised that single-use plastics are a major burden on the environment (and less healthy) particularly as only 9% of plastic is recycled worldwide [10]. So trying not to preach or gloat (there is so much that I’m doing that is not good I’m sure), I’ve switched to filtered water in a non-plastic reusable container. Also if you don’t already - go for reusable bags for your food shopping.
  3. Collaborate at a local event: there are hundreds of events scheduled around the world (half-way down the page) so hopefully you can find something suitable near you.
  4. Sign the Global Plastics Treaty: implore the UN to reduce plastic waste by 60% by 2040. They meet in Ottawa, Canada on the big day (Monday 22nd April 2024). Leaders must be led by the people.


1: A. O. Ogunbayo*, O. O. Olanipekun, I. A. Adamu (2019) Preliminary Studies on the Microbial Degradation of Plastic Waste Using Aspergillus niger and Pseudomonas sp. Available at: (Accessed 17 April 2024).

2: José Maria Rodrigues da Luz, Sirlaine Albino Paes,Karla Veloso Gonçalves Ribeiro, Igor Rodrigues Mendes, Maria Catarina Megumi Kasuya (2015) Degradation of Green Polyethylene by Pleurotus ostreatus. Available at: (Accessed 18 March 2024).

3: Anthony L. Andrady, Mike A. Neal (2009) Applications and societal benefits of plastics. Available at: (Accessed 17 April 2024).

4: Trevor Greene (2022) The Untapped Potential of the Amazon’s Plastic-Eating Mushroom. Available at: (Accessed 16 April 2024).

5: Danielle Wightman-Stone (2021) Stella McCartney unveils first garments made from Mylo, a fungi-based fabric. Available at: (Accessed 18 April 2024).

6: Hannah Ritchie, Veronika Samborska and Max Roser (2023) Plastic Pollution. Available at: (Accessed 14 April 2024).

7: Anusha H. Ekanayaka, Saowaluck Tibpromma, Donqin Dai, Ruifang Xu, Nakarin Suwannarach, Steven L. Stephenson, Chengjiao Dao and Samantha C. Karunarathna (2022) A Review of the Fungi That Degrade Plastic. Available at: (Accessed 15 April 2024).

8: National Geographic (2018) A Whopping 91 Percent of Plastic Isn’t Recycled. Available at: (Accessed 16 April 2024).

9: Hannah Ritchie (2023) How much plastic waste ends up in the ocean?. Available at: (Accessed 17 April 2024).

10: Stuart Braun (2023) Why most plastic can’t be recycled. Available at: (Accessed 16 April 2024).