convert plastic into food

In March 2022, scientists made the alarming discovery that plastic particles from environmental contamination are making their way in to the human blood. Austrian Designer and sustainability advocate, Katharina Unger has developed a way to address this very sort of pollution from plastic with fungi, and her decidely more pleasant discovery—the mushrooms are also edible.

Unger leads a groundbreaking project that aims to use fungi to convert plastic into food. (For more about Unger, you can look at reporter Anna Roth’s article in Modern Farmer.) Though more research still needs to be done into the effects of plastic on the human body, potential solutions to the problem have been in the works for years.

In 2012, Yale researchers discovered a fungus capable of breaking down polyurethane, a key ingredient in plastics. This was the same ingredient that Unger and her team used to feed fungi in their Fungi Mutarium, a prototype that grows edible fungi, which could be a future component of the plastic-eating process in development.

You might also enjoy reading: Are Microplastics in Your Blood?

You can see her prototype in action above, showing exactly how the fungus grows in egg-shaped pods made from a seaweed-based gelatin substitute, resulting in the completely edible byproduct of decomposed starch, sugar and plastic, a process that takes several months. 

Check out Unger’s Vienna TEDx talk, “What if this device could change your eating habits?” In it, she discusses a similar device that was designed for harvesting insects for human consumption. 

Other researchers have built on the work that Unger, the Yale team and others have begun. In 2017 scientists discovered yet another plastic-eating mushroom living in soil in Pakistan, which breaks down polyester polyurethane within a two-month period. They published their findings in the journal Science Direct.

Katharina Unger
Katharina Unger is an Austrian designer and sustainable living advocate, who leads this project to use fungi to convert plastic into food. Katharina Unger: Paris Tsitsos, 2018

Since then, research into fungi-eating plastics has continued. Researchers from the U.S. to Germany, and the U.K. to France have been working to develop fungi that are ever-more efficient (and hungry). Not everyone, though, thinks that plastic-eating fungi will be commercially viable anytime soon. In July 2021, Prof. Ramani Narayan of Michigan State University told the BBC, “the technology will have to compete with proven, commercial conversion technologies using mundane, less exciting water-catalyst systems.”

In other words, fungi will need to eat a lot more, a lot more quickly, to keep up with global plastic.

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