Plastic eating mushrooms

Even though the realm of fungi can help us make burial suits or edible lamps, I still remain the most impressed and hopeful at the prospect of us having packaging made of mycelium instead of petroleum. The fact that we could replace the unrecyclable Styrofoam with bio-degradable material definitely is good news for the ones who become depressed at the sight the unnecessary wrapping in supermarkets.  However, what do we do with the billions of tons of plastic that still float in our oceans or remain in our mounting landfills? Truth is there is still a lot of waste which is still polluting our environment and we have no idea how to get rid of it.

Luckily for us, the University of Utrecht is determined to experiment in every way possible with mushrooms and their fantastic possibilities. This time, they teamed up with Livin Studio, a collaborative design development office that gathers inventors, innovators, designers, culinary artists and scientist under the same roof. This project is called Fungi Mutarium and it aims to create a new fungi food product grown on plastic waste alongside building the apparatus to grow it.

The process starts with the plastic being UV treated in the “Activation Cylinder”, which is at the bottom of the mutarium. This step is necessary because the UV rays will sterilize the plastic and trigger the decomposition process of the material, thus making it easier for the fungus to break down. Then, the “FU”s are placed in the mutarium’s “Growth Sphere” with the help of some pincers for the work to be as sterile as possible. To explain, “FU” is the shape on which the fungus grows and it is made from agar – a seaweed based gelatin substitute. This is also mixed with starch and sugar, which both work as a nutrient base for the fungus. The fungi that they use are Schizophyllum commune and Pleurotus ostreatus that can be found anywhere in the world.

The shape of the FU was designed to hold the plastic but as well to offer enough space for the mushroom to grow. And because it is intended to be eaten by people, the Growth Sphere was made to resemble the harvesting mushrooms in the wild.

The plastic is then inserted in the FU to be digested and then the liquid nutrient solution in which there are fungi sprouts is dropped unto the FU’s to kindle the growing process. After a couple of weeks the plastic disappears and what is left is a FU which is edible due to the fact that the mushroom breaks down the plastic without storing it, like in the case of metals.

This experiment, doesn’t aim to digest all the plastic waste there is in the world, but rather to come up with a new technology to farm under extreme environmental conditions. However, it does prove that plastic can be broken down by fungi.

Another interesting fungus able to break down plastic is Pestalotiopsis microspora (found in the Amazon forest), an incredible fungus known also to break down styrofoam and plastic by-products.

 

A report by Ioana Popescu

 

Liora Yuklea’s Fine Line highlights world’s food waste issue

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Image courtesy: fineline.my.co

Even though we might usually be too busy to contemplate about it, we all know it: the world today faces a lot of problems. Whether they are environmental, political or economic or whether they arise by mistake, ignorance or culture, we have to deal with them sooner or later. When enough resources are found, researches are undergone, which increases the chances for that problem to be eventually tackled. But even though you presented facts to a person which would make you more credible than if you only talked about it, it is not certain you would produce a change of perspective – humankind can be particularly stubborn when it comes to holding on to its interests and beliefs.

In these kind of situations, art comes in handy. For centuries, it has served as a tool for artists to spread a certain message, to reflect the society or to underline perhaps a not so evident thing to people. It can be an effective way of critique towards the establishment and could bring societal change or simply raise awareness. Obviously, as any tool, it can be used in malevolent ways, just like the dictatorial states have used it for propaganda. However, it can do what sometimes incomprehensible and dusty researches cannot do – convince the people.

This is what Liora Yuklea, a MFA student at the Design for Social Innovation program at the School of Visual Arts in New York, tried to do in her first semester. The result of the semester was a piece she entitled “A Fine Line”.

The project started out from the problem of food waste: a third of the food produced is thrown away. Imagine the world’s biggest stadium full to its entire capacity – that’s how much good quality untouched food goes to waste every single day in the USA. But simply throwing food away is not the only cause for this problem; a lot of food gets wasted because it doesn’t meet the “aesthetics standards” of size, color, weight and blemish level. In Britain, 40% of the fruit and vegetable crops don’t make it to the shops because they look too “ugly”. Our obsession with appearance creates ‘a fine line’ between two types of fruits or vegetables perfectly good to consume.

She created a dining set (a table with two chair and two plates) halved in two different realities – one part that is industrially produced and with a perfect finish and the other part, grown organically from a mix of mushroom mycelium and wood waste. She based the naturally grown part in the principle that the fungus can digest anything that is cellulose based. In the process of growing the material, the mycelium forms a spongy matrix of a material called chitin; it can take up any space and the growth continues as long as there is something for the mushroom to feed on and as long as there is moisture. If you dry it (at around 180 F) you stop the growing process.

This principle is the same Ecovative uses when manufacturing the packaging or the bricks. Liora started experimenting by inoculating petri dishes and jars of woodchips, gypsum and wheat germ with Reishi and Oyster mycelium. However, because of lack of experience a lot of the samples were contaminated and thus unusable. This lack of experience with growing organic furniture and also the pressure of time made her contact Ecovative itself to ship her their live mycelium and wood waste mix plus some already prepared mycofoam panels as back up. In the end, she managed to have the art piece created in time for the exhibition and deliver her ingenious metaphor.

You can find the whole development of her project and get inspired at fineline-my.co.

 

A report by Ioana Popescu

The eco-friendly burial suit uses carnivorous mushrooms

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Photo courtesy: beautifuldecay.com

Every day, we go on with our lives, with our more or less conscious routines, striving to survive or succeed in this world. And even though each member of the society is well-aware of the fact that death will eventually interfere with his or her life, we all are culturally used to dismiss the thought, doing everything in our capability to avoid thinking about death. You can see this in the mainstream obsession with looking young or the amount of money and time invested in this aim, but also in the tradition of embalming the deceased.

However, beyond cultural perception, it is high time we addressed the issue of dying as cemeteries are becoming too full for new ‘residents’. A consequence of this is the increase in cremations burials which hardly seems like a better alternative since it is extremely polluting – in the UK, 16% of the mercury pollution was caused by cremation, due to our dental fillings.

Indeed, there seems to be a new solution to this problem: green burials. This practice which started in the 1980’s as a backlash against crowded cemeteries in the UK translates into abandoning these unnatural practices such as formaldehyde-based embalming, metal caskets or concrete burial vaults. It’s basically how humans have been burying the dead for hundreds of years: letting the body be food for the soil.

Unfortunately, researches showed that even this way it’s not that environmentally good as one might hope for. Truth is that during our lifetime we store a lot of environmental toxins in our body. The most common might be bisphenol A (BPA) which is a material hardener and a synthetic estrogen that’s found in the lining of canned foods and some types of plastics. It mimics the hormones of our body and can cause neurological and reproductive problems. Studies found that BPA can be found in 93% of people aged 6 or older. But the Centers of Disease Control in the US argues that there are over 200 toxic chemicals in our body; these include tobacco residues, dry cleaning chemicals, pesticides, fungicides, flame-retardants, heavy metals, preservatives, etc. And after we die,all of them end up into the environment, through our bodies.

But artist Jae Rhim Lee came up with a solution, creating the Infinity Burial Project and what she refers to in her Ted talk as the “ninja pijamas”. With the idea in mind that the toxins in our body should not enter the ecosystem through decomposition, she created a mushroom burial suit. The costume is accompanied by a fungal strain that consumes dead human tissue, thus decontaminating the body, in a process of mycoremediation. This practice is already used in cleaning toxic sites and the lead researcher in this field is Paul Stamets. With organic toxins, fungi break down molecular bonds this way neuterlizing toxins or they break toxins down into simpler, less toxic chemicals. With heavy metals for example, the fungi bind the toxins through a process called chelation, making the chemicals harmless.

The mushrooms used are of two types: edible and mycorrhizal. The first ones are decomposers that can break down a variety of food producing enzymes while the latter type creates relationships with plant roots while also delivering nutrients to them.

By feeding dead skin, hair and nail to the mushrooms, Lee cultivated a fungal strain that would be able both to produce edible mushrooms and remediate toxins in our body. (However, the part with production of edible mushrooms is still being experimented with). In 2015, she joined with Michael Ma and founded together Coeio, a “green funeral start-up”. Their Infinity Burial Suit is a handcrafted garment, is biodegradable (of course) and was designed with the help of the zero waste designer Daniel Silverstein. As far as I know, one person already was buried in this suit and here is his story

To conclude, although the fact that even in death we can still pollute the Earth is thoroughly depressing, at least mushrooms combined with science and creativity can offer us eco-friendly funerals.

 

A report by Ioana Popescu

Textile innovations – bio-degradable mushroom dress

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Source & photo courtesy: neffa.nl

After all these reports I’ve been writing, I bet every reader has understood by now how wondrous fungi are. Moreover, as researches are exploring new possibilities, I think it’s very clear what an environmentally sustainable alternative the kingdom of fungi offers to already existing mundane things such as packaging, bricks or even paper.

So why would the fashion industry be the exception to this rule? Even though inspiration might come from past trends, designers are up to experimenting with different things in their humane quest to innovate the craft. Nowadays, probably the most inspiring tool is provided by technology which offers a new and limitless playground. Also, this technology is used for testing ideas for products with smaller impact on the environment, a subject that keeps on expanding as the concern regarding the future of our planet is growing.  Thus, it seems more than logical that the second most polluting industry on Earth should look for ecological alternatives.

One such initiative comes to life through Neffa company. Their name means in Dutch “wanting to do things just that bit differently” and their self-described mission is “to create textiles that act like living organisms and with which we live in symbiosis”. They aim to create materials using biotechnology that would resemble the skin and its dynamic. They are researching several organisms, for example algae and mycelium, but what I’ll be talking about is how the company uses mycelium to create a sort of textile, which they called mycoTex.

The soul of the company is Aniela Hoitink, a textile designer. In the beginning she was interested in creating a textile out of a living product, which will eventually end up in a wearable piece of clothing. That is how she began experimenting with mycelium that is the vegetative part of a fungus. What encouraged her in using the mycelium were the insulating and moisture-absorbing proprieties of it, which a lot of textiles miss. However, she was not alone in her endeavor: the University of Utrecht and Maurizio Montalti were helping with the technical part. What they tried to experiment with was: growing mycelium onto natural fibers, growing it with polymer spacer fabrics and growing it in a 3D star shaped petri-dish.

Some of the initial findings of these experiments were that mycelium does not grow on a tight knitted or woven fabric and that mycelium does not use the textile as a food source.

Eventually, Aniela developed the composite product named MycoTex and then decided to build a textile out of modules and shaped these circular pieces around a body form, thus creating the Neffa dress. This creation is groundbreaking because it can be built whilst being made, fitting the customer’s wishes, because it eliminates the possible leftovers made during the process and it can be composted when it’s no longer desired.

Another such invention came to life by the hands of Danish product designer Jonas Edward, who created a material called MYX, which is grown from mushroom spores and plant fibers. His idea combines natural plant fibers (agricultural waste) and oyster mycelium. During the production of the material which takes about two weeks, the mycelium spreads through the textile matt (hemp and linen fibers), behaving like a glue between the fibers. The mycelium who continues to collect energy from the plant material, breaks down the cellulose into sugar, in this way producing mushrooms ready to be eaten! (If the material is dried, there will be no “offsprings”). In the end, the creation of this material, from which the designer made a lamp with, produces no waste – something that the creator aimed for and which is also a great achievement in today’s manufacturing.

 

A report by Ioana Popescu

Paper made out of fungus

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Photo courtesy: Dorothy Smullen

Source: namyco.org

Throughout my life I’ve wasted a lot of time in bookstores, glancing at colored notebooks or tiny agendas, with their thicker or thinner covers alluring you to buy them or offer them as a gift. I didn’t even think that there might exist an alternative to this cellulose empire.

Luckily, the fungi kingdom doesn’t fail to make itself useful this time either: yes, you can make paper out of mushrooms. (Technically, paper can be properly called “paper” only if processed from materials which contain lignin, but to simplify this, I will refer to it as paper).

The fundamental ingredient in plant based paper is cellulose fibers which have been used since the first century C.E. The invention was preceded by clay tablets, papyrus or animal skin, all which were means of communication. Fiber paper spread in the 6th century in China and Japan, reaching Europe only in the 10th century. Since then, the process has been heavily mechanized and instilled in our everyday life.

But in the 1970, people became interested in other sources of fiber for paper production. Through experimentation, it was concluded that such could be extracted from shells of shrimp. In these, one could find a substance called chitin, similar to the one found in fungi. This information inspired Miriam C. Rice (whom we’ve already spoken about and alongside with her mushroom-dying experiments) to experiment making paper from different kind of fungi, primarily from polypores.

Before delving into the actual process of making paper into your home, let us mention some of the species of fungi most suitable for this task. Even though fleshy mushrooms can still be used, the best are the hard, woody, tree-dwelling and conks or other fibrous fungi. Some varieties good to be used include: Trametes versicolor, Piptoporus betulinus, Ganoderma lucidum (also known as Reishi or Ling Chi) or Fomitopis species. Some ways of getting wood conks are purchasing, foraging or cultivating them.

After collecting fresh or dried fungi, they should be soaked at least overnight. (They can be soaked for weeks if the water is changed every 2-3 days). One may add recycled papers, colored threads or strips. Tip: if you add newspaper, you will get gray overtones. Generally, the shades will vary from pale, almost white to deep ecru, even brown.

In the preparation of the process you should order a thick stack of newspapers over which there should be other absorbent materials. You should also have your deckle and your mould prepared, whether you make it yourself or buy it.

After soaking the mushrooms, chop and then grind them with water in a blender until you obtain a puree. Dump the stock you got into the tray with plenty of water and stir until the materials are well distributed. Then, with your hands, move from side to side under the surface of the water to line up the fibers. Afterwards, with your deckle and mould, submerge it under the surface and quickly lift up. Quickly, move it in both directions to ensure a good coverage. Let the paper drip back, until most of the water has run off. Now that your “piece of paper” is done you have to transfer it on another surface. You have to rapidly flip it onto a sheeting or a toweling. Cover the sheet with a screen and soak up excess water with a sponge. Afterwards you have to be careful with how you take off the screen off the paper – it shouldn’t become too dry.

The last step is drying the paper: for this, one should continue to replace the newspapers and the covering cloths. (Ironing over a cover cloth might speed up the process). When fully dried, hang or, in case you wish for a very flat paper, put the paper under weights while also changing the cloths frequently.

And here you have it: your own piece of paper with fungus!

 

A report by Iona Popescu