Cigarette filters are the most commonly littered waste product in the world. Last year, nearly 1.7 billion pounds of cigarette filters were thrown into the globe’s landfills and ecosystems. That’s roughly 4.5 trillion cigarette butts littered each year! In the US alone, an estimated 135 million pounds of cigarette butts are thrown away annually.
Cigarette filters are made from a type of plastic called cellulose acetate. As cellulose acetate does not readily biodegrade, cigarette litter can persist in the environment for 10-15 years or longer before it begins to break down. The filters that aren’t thrown into the streets and parks of the world find their way into landfills where they slowly leach toxic chemicals and heavy metals into ground water systems. Fortunately, fungi may provide a solution to this global issue.
As discussed in the Radical Mycology article, Fungi and The Plastics Problem, it has long been known that fungi can degrade various forms of plastic. However, a large-scale, real-world application of this ability has never been explored to any real depth. This may have been due to a variety of factors, one of which being that the chemical composition of many plastics is too complex for many fungi to readily digest. The plastic that composes cigarette filters, however, is of a rather simple composition and thus allows some common fungi to easily digest it.
Cellulose is the structural component in plant cell walls and is also one of the most accessible nutrient sources that fungi degrade in the natural world. Fungi use digestive enzymes to break down cellulose into simple sugars, which are then metabolized by the fungus. As the cellulose acetate that comprises cigarette filters is nothing more than a modified form of plant cellulose, it turns out that some fungi can break down this industrial plastic waste product.
As Peter of the Radical Mycology project demonstrates in the video below, fungi can not only be trained to digest used cigarette filters but possibly the toxic chemicals that they harbor as well. The methodology Peter used to accomplish this goal was based on an understanding of the skills needed to “train” a fungus to digest a foreign substance. Simply put, the mushroom cultivator must slowly introduce a new food source to a fungus so that the fungus can first determine and then produce the correct enzymes necessary to digest the novel substrate. The same concepts that Peter introduces in this video can be applied to a range of toxins and industrial chemicals, such as petroleum products, dioxins, dyes, and munitions. This is a concept known as fungal remediation. In recent years, skills such as these were coveted techniques used by professional mycologists and bioremediation firms. However, as the global grassroots bioremediation community has continued to grow in the last few years, these techniques have become increasingly more available to the common cultivator.
Skills such as this will be explored in-depth in the Radical Mycology Book. If you would like to learn more advanced mycological skills for reducing your pollution impact and to help clean up the environment, please consider backing the Radical Mycology Book Indiegogo campaign.
Evan Shoepke at Punk Rock Permaculture recently did an interview with Peter from the Radical Mycology collective about the ways that working with the fungal kingdom can influence and inform the work of effective biomimicry and permaculture design. Check out the interview below and then stop by Evan’s site to check out the wealth of DIY & low-cost permaculture resources that he provides.
The Radical Mycology Book Fundraiser officially launches today! Please take a few seconds to spread the some Radical Mycology love and share our Indiegogo campaign.
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Radical Mycology presents their newest educational zine and 3-part video on some of the simplest and cheapest methods for cultivating large quantities of mycelium for remediation purposes. Titled, Mushroom Cultivation for Remediation, this unprecedented guide is the first in a series of educational materials to come from Radical Mycology meant to guide the beginner thru the theory and practice of effective and economic restoration and remediation work using fungi and other organisms. Check them out at the link below and donate if you can to receive a printed version of the text.
See the text here.
Watch the 3-part videos here.
Radical Mycology co-founder Peter McCoy will be holding a 2.5 day intensive on the theory, practice, and application of mushroom cultivation this October in his home town of Olympia, Washington. This course covers the essentials of mushroom production for all budgets, with an emphasis on techniques and tools that keep costs and complexity to a minimum. Whether you are looking to start a small mushroom farm or grow your own edible and medicinal mushrooms for personal use, this course will cover the core skills needed to hit the ground running.
For more info, click here.
After hours of toil and editing, the 2012 Radical Mycology Convergence videos are almost entirely online! See them here.
Peter McCoy from the Radical Mycology crew will be hitting the road this summer to hold a few speaking events around the country on the following presentation. Come by and say hey if you are in the area!
Radical Mycology: Culture from the Leading Edge
In this presentation/discussion we will take a philosophical approach to the redefinition of human/fungal relationships in these changing times. Peter McCoy, co-founder of the Radical Mycology project, will share his perspective on the lessons exhibited by the fungal kingdom and their mycelial networks in relation to strengthening human societies and creating a more harmonious world. What can we learn from the fungi about longevity and resilience in the face of severe global challenges? How can we live our lives more in balance with nature and in greater symbiosis with each other? These questions and more can be answered by the fungi, if one takes the time to ask and observe. Come to learn, then stay to join the discussion and add to this growing dialogue.
August 2 | Forest Grove, OR | Northwest Permaculture Convergence
August 12 | 4PM | Seattle, WA | Black Coffee
$5 suggested donation, no one turned away for lack of funds
August 16-18 – Telluride, CO – Shroomfest
Saturday the 17th – 1:30PM
Radical Mycology: Symbiotic cultures from the leading edge
Sunday the 18th – 9:30AM
Radical Mycology and Classical Mycology: A Discussion
August 20 | 6PM | Denver, CO | Denver Zine Library
$5 suggested donation, no one turned away for lack of funds
August 22 | 5PM | Santa Fe, NM | Radical Abacus
$5 suggested donation, no one turned away for lack of funds
Sept 4 | 6PM | Portland, OR | Laughing Horse Books
$5 suggested donation, no one turned away for lack of funds
Radical Mycology co-founder Peter McCoy has co-authored a chapter on fungal remediation, Radical Mycology, and the Radical Mycology Convergence in the new book from Leila Darwish entitled Earth Repair. This book is an amazing guide to community-scale, DIY remediation and healing in disaster scenarios. Read the description below then head over to the book’s website at earthrepair.ca to pick up a copy!
Earth Repair: A Grassroots Guide To Healing Toxic and Damaged Landscapes
By: Leila Darwish
“Millions of acres of land have been contaminated by pesticides, improperly handled chemicals, dirty energy projects, toxic waste, and other pollutants in the United States and Canada. Conventional clean-up techniques employed by government and industry are not only incredibly expensive and resource-intensive, but can also cause further damage to the environment. More and more communities find themselves increasingly unable to rely on those companies and governments who created the problems to step in and provide solutions.
How can we, the grassroots, work with the power of living systems to truly heal and transform toxic and damaged landscapes into thriving, healthy, and fertile places once more? How can we respond to environmental disasters in accessible and community empowering ways?
Earth Repair explores a host of powerful and accessible grassroots bioremediation techniques to assist with the recovery of the lands and waters that nourish us. These techniques include:
Mycoremediation – using fungi to clean up contaminated soil and water.
Microbial remediation – using microorganisms to break down and bind contaminants
Phytoremediation – using plants to extract, bind, and transform toxins
Packed with valuable firsthand information, recipes and remedies from visionaries in the field, Earth Repair empowers communities and individuals to take action and heal contaminated and damaged land and water. Encompassing everything from remediating and regenerating abandoned city lots for urban farmers and gardeners, to responding and recovering from environmental disasters and industrial catastrophes such as oil spills and nuclear fallout, this fertile toolbox is essential reading for anyone who wishes to transform environmental despair into constructive action.
The book also features inspiring mycoremediation contributions from Peter McCoy (Radical Mycology) and Ja Schindler (Fungi for The People), as well as interviews with Paul Stamets (Fungi Perfecti), Mia Rose Maltz (Amazon Mycorenewal Project), and Scott Koch (Telluride Mushroom Festival).
For more information about the book and upcoming workshops, or to order the book, go to http://www.earthrepair.ca.
About the Author:
Leila Darwish is a community organizer, permaculture practioner, educator, writer, grassroots herbalist, and urban gardener with a deep commitment to environmental justice, food sovereignty, and to providing accessible and transformative tools for communities dealing with toxic contamination of their land and drinking water.
Over the last decade, she has worked as a community organizer for different environmental organizations and community groups in Alberta, BC and the USA on campaigns such as tar sands, fracking, nuclear energy, coal, climate justice, water protection, and more. She is a certified permaculture designer and has also apprenticed on different organic farms across Canada and the USA.”
Radical Mycology will be holding a presence at this year’s Village Building Convergence in Portland, OR. If you are in the area, please come and join us for this unique presentation and discussion.
Join Peter McCoy, co-founder of Radical Mycology, Leila Darwish, author of Earth Repair, James Weiser, co-founder of Amateur Mycology, and Maria Farinacci of Fungi for the People to discuss the next evolution in stewardship: community scale remediation and the direct rehabilitation of polluted environments. This presentation will introduce the role of fungi, plants, and bacteria in cleaning up and restoring ecosystems damaged by heavy metals, as well as chemical and biological contaminants. Concepts of fungal cultivation and remediation will be explored along with numerous ways to integrate these species (as well as bacteria and plants) into a more sustainable and natural way of life. To be followed by a Q&A session and, time permitting, a small mushroom bed installation.
8512 SE 8th Portland, OR
Sunday, May 26
This talk is free and open to the public.
Join us for 10 days of immersion in to the world of Mycorenewal! Learn from an array of experienced mycologists and take part in hands-on projects. Gain the skills, knowledge and resources you need to implement a mycorenewal project in your community.
The course will be held at the Quaker Center outside of Santa Cruz, CA June 15-25th 2013.
Topics we will cover:
-Mushroom cultivation methods
-Remediating toxins with fungi and bacteria
-Cleaning up oil spills in the Amazon
-How to have successful organizations and mushroom projects
Maya Elson — Environmental Educator, co-founder of Radical Mycology
Mia Maltz — Lead Scientist for Amazon Mycorenewal Project, Ph.D student at UC Irvine, Permaculture Instructor
Robert Rawson — General Manager of the Graton Community Services District, Microbiology Professor
Peter McCoy — Co-founder of Radical Mycology, Mushroom Cultivation Instructor
Alan Rockefeller — Mushroom Taxonomist Extraordinaire
Leila Darwish — Author of Grassroots Bioremediation
More Instructors TBA
College credit available upon request
Visit http://www.theartofmycorenewal.wordpress.com for more info.
Plastic. Scourge of the sea and persistent terror of the land. Toxic soup emitter and immitigable plague of highway shoulders and shopping aisles. This 100 year old creation has been one of the greatest contributors to both the epic wave of industrial growth that swept the globe in the last century as well as the ripples of pollution that follow in its wake. Now reigning as our planet’s number one source of pollution, plastic has become a threat to the health of nearly all biological systems on Earth. More than 140 million tons of plastic were manufactured worldwide in 2001 alone (Cosgrove et al 2007), much of that likely to end up in the trash or on the side of the road. Luckily, though, the fungi just might be able to do something about this.
A “miracle” of modern science, plastic has become ubiquitous throughout the world, acting as a symbol of the cancerous throw-away culture of the West and its increasingly narrow minded foresight into the fate of coming generations. Often designed for one-time use, plastics are readily discarded to sit for unknown years as they slowly degrade and release hazardous chemicals into the soil and groundwater.
But what is plastic, really? On the microscopic level, plastics are a type of polymer, or chain of repeating smaller units (known as monomers) that are chemically bonded via an industrial process. One of the two main bonding processes, known as an addition synthesis, results in the petroleum based hydrocarbons that make up most plastics are joined to form long chains of very strong chemical bonds (known as carbon-carbon bonds). The other process, known as condensation synthesis, requires a hydrogen atom from one monomer and a hydroxyl group from another join together, thus forming a water molecule and leaving the monomers joined by a peptide or ester bond.
Since the first plastic synthesis process was patented in 1909, plastics have become increasingly common in industrial applications. Compared to the wood, metal, and glass objects they replaced, plastics were quickly realized to be inexpensive, highly moldable, resistant to deterioration, and uniform in output. While these advantages have led to plastics becoming part a common part of our lives, these same properties have also been the cause of severe ecological and waste management problems globally.
As noted above, plastics persist in the environment for unknown amounts of time. Certain types are estimated to remain intact for at least several thousand of years. This problem now finds us with an estimated 20-30% (by volume) of municipal solid waste being taken up by plastics in landfill sites worldwide (Ishigaki et al 2003). As these plastics persist, they leach horrible byproducts such as BPA (a well known carcinogen and endocrine disruptor) into surrounding groundwater and soils. Meanwhile, the water repelling nature of some plastics has been reported to simultaneously attract toxins, concentrate them, and thereby form reservoirs of toxic chemicals in their immediate environment (Roy et. Al. 2011).
One of the greatest unseen threats that plastics present outside of the landfill is their accumulation in, and subsequent toxification of, the oceans. Each of the world’s oceans have vast areas where, due to the interaction and interference of cross-currents, sea water tends to stagnate and spiral in one place instead of circling the globe. It is in these areas, known as gyres, that plastic pieces from around the planet come to accumulate in “trash islands.” The most famous, and largest, of these is the Great Pacific Gyre (GPG), which is located in the northern Pacific Ocean and is estimated to cover a surface area the size of the state of Texas while standing at a depth of 30 feet.
As plastics accumulate in these gyres, the magnitude of their impact is often not fully realized as much of the waste is not visible from the air. Instead, the effects of tidal forces and the intense UV radiation from the sun result in the plastics being perpetually broken down in to smaller and smaller pieces. These gyres become a literal plastic soup, filled with toxic plastic residue and particles. When fish swim through this cesspool, they often confuse the plastic fragments for plankton, a mistake that severely disrupts marine food webs down the line (Thompson et al, 2004). Sea turtles end up eating plastic bags thinking they are jellyfish only to suffocate, while albatross birds feed their babies brightly colored lids that they confuse for fish, resulting in huge fatalities to their population.
Recycling is often considered the best option for dealing with the plastics problem, but it doesn’t represent a complete solution. Eight percent of plastics are called thermosets, which simply means that they can’t be remolded or recycled (Zheng & Yanful, 2005). The other main type of plastics, thermoplastics, that can potentially be recycled, require careful sorting (a labor and cost intensive process most governments can’t, or won’t, afford to pay) while simultaneously resulting in an inferior plastic with lower economic value. Even so called “biodegrabale” plastics are not all they are cracked up to be. Though the chemical structure of these biodegradable plastics has been modified to supposedly help increase the speed of decomposition, some tests have failed to prove how well this actually plays out in the landfill. Real solutions to the plastic problem need to be investigated and improved upon.
Not surprising to fans of the Radical Mycology movement (we hope) is the notion that fungi just might provide the solution. Indeed, fungi (and to a lesser degree supporting bacteria) have been known to degrade plastic since the material was first manufactured over 100 years ago. This realization came about during endurance tests performed on plastics during its early years as manufacturers sought to prove the utility of their product over the metal and wood it was to replace. One such test involved simply burying pieces of plastic in the ground and seeing what would happen. Low and behold, when they dug the pieces up a year or two later, the experimenters found microscopic organisms digesting the plastic. The basic form of this test has been repeated around the world numerous times in the decades since, each with test finding similar results (i.e. many ground dwelling species of fungi can decrease the integrity of plastics). The most common ways to prove this deterioration is through quantified changes in coloration or tensile strength of the plastics. In some experiments, scientists would even go a step further by taking the uncovered plastic pieces, isolating the individual bacteria and fungi found growing on them, and then testing each organism for its individual degradation ability. While this research has discovered several species and genera well suited to this task (one study even confirming that it was the fungi, not the bacteria, that were the main contributors to this process), little progress has been made toward developing a method applicable outside the lab, let alone in the landfill.
The way that fungi are able to break down such a foreign substance as plastic is through the utilization of an incredible set of unique enzymes. These enzymes are typically used by the fungi to break down the organic material of the world to create a food sources that that the fungi can then metabolize. The decomposing fungi (known as saprotrophs) excrete powerful enzymes that can break the long, complex molecules of plant matter (e.g. cellulose and lignin) into simple sugars while simultaneously recycling forest nutrients to create fresh soil from dead matter. In recent years, these same fungi (via the enzymes they produce) have been found to breakdown other complex molecules created by modern industry. For example, certain fungal species can degrade such nasty substances as motor oil, diesel, herbicides, pesticides, DDT, TNT, PAHs, and dioxins (Stamets, 2005).
Similar to how a fly procures its food, fungi excrete these enzymes outside of themselves on to this organic material, digesting their food externally before absorbing (or injesting) it. For our problem at hand, this extra-cellular form of digestion can be taken advantage of by cultivating the plastic eating fungi under controlled conditions and then isolating their enzymes en masse. These liquid enzymes could then be applied to waste plastic directly to help begin the process of remediation on a large scale (Russell et al 6081). While this might sound a bit far fetched, it is essentially the way in which most citric acid is produced for the food industry.
In fact, students from Yale have recently done just this process while applying a novel kind of fungus to an old kind of plastic. What makes the Yale research particularly exciting is that instead of focusing on ground dwelling fungi, the team at Yale took the novel approach of using an endophytic (plant inhabiting) fungus. This type of fungi lives inside of plants (literally between the plant’s cell walls), cohabitating with the plants for largely unknown reasons. While the endophytes are potentially one of the most diverse categories of fungi (with any given plant possibly containing hundreds of species of them), they are at the same time one of the least studied branches in the fungal kingdom. Minimal work has been put into the search for the use of endophytes in fungal remediation so when the Yale team applied their endophyte (Pestalotiopsis microspora, procured from a plant in the Amazon jungle) to polyester polyurethane, a type of plastic commonly used for textiles, their positive results were astonishing for several reasons. Not only could the endophyte they used survive off the plastic as its only carbon (i.e. food) source, but it could this do both in the presence and absence of oxygen! This important discovery opens up a whole new world to the prospects of fungal decomposition as unknown numbers of endophytes exist in the world, many of which may very well hold similar capabilities. The ability for this fungus to survive without air is also notable as one of the bigger roadblocks to real-world application of fungal plastic degradation has been the fact that many of ground dwelling fungi would not survive in anaerobic areas such as landfills.
Crucial to the advancement of this work will be the ability of researchers to acquire more powerful (and locally derived) species of fungi. One study dealing with the fungal degradation of PHB, a thermoplastic polyester, revealed an interesting, and productive, approach to searching for possible candidates. The study suggested that by focusing on species that have become de-lichenized (i.e. fungi whose ancestors were once associated within lichens but are now free-living). Many such species still produce unique chemical compounds that were developed to degrade rock and other materials during the lichenized stage of their ancestry. The thought that follows then is that these same chemicals might also be able to degrade plastics. Focusing on genera such as Penicillium, Aspergillus, and other lichen-associated fungal species, may result in a more efficient search for better plastic degraders.
As a final thought on the possibilities presented here, it should be noted that in all these situations the best result will likely come from an attempt at the reproduction of the natural degradation process (a.k.a. biomimicry) and the use of biological succession. Succession is the change of species in an ecological community over time. One example of this comes with the stages of primary, secondary, and tertiary fungi that decompose the organic matter of the world’s forests. If the decomposition of a redwood is most effective when processed through fungal succession, it makes sense that a similar process would be useful with plastics. In fact, one study by Ruth Kavelman and Bryce Kendrick in 1978 tested this theory against poly-epsilon caprolactone and ended with positive results. Ultimately, it will likely take such a considerate approach, one that that reflects and respects the complexity of nature, to really begin dealing with the plastics problem, rather than a reductionist, white-pill tactic.
It is no longer easy to ignore the plague of plastics on our planet. While reducing needless consumption and emphasizing more recycling leads in the direction of greater awareness, the fact remains that unless somethig tangible is done about it, a century’s worth of plastic bottles and packaging will lie buried and leaching for thousands of years to come. Yet while the use of fungi to be a potentail way out of this disaster scenario is awe inspiring, we must not let it slip into an easy excuse to continue with our wasteful culture as normal. Without a real reduction in the horrible practices of extraction and manufacturing that lead up to the production of plastics, their removal with fungi will only become another “green” way to keep sailing this Titanic in the dark as if nothing could go wrong. Lets us not forget to Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. To which we would add a fourth step: Remediate.
Ultimately, however, without a technology developed to make the use of these fungi against plastics tangible and applicable, this research is for nothing. When we see that in a 100 years of study in to this matter has made limited advancement, that funding is more and more limited for fungal remedaiton work, and that often the powers that be seemingly choose to not invest in real solutions, it might very well come down to the amateur mycologist to explore these possibilities and come up with solutions themself (just as this Canadian high school student did several years ago). The future is in our hands so let’s get them in the dirt!
Cosgrove, Lee, Paula McGeechan, Geoff Robson, Pauline Handley. 2007.
Deacon, Jim. 2005.
Ishigaki, T., W. Sugano, A. Nakanishi, M. Tateda, M. Ike, M. Fujita. 2004.
Priyanka, Nayak and Tiwari Archana. 2011.
Seneviratne, G., Tennakoon, N.S., M.L.M.A.W. Weerasekara, K.A. Nandasena. 2006. :
Stamets, Paul. 2005. g.
Just came across this short analysis of the benefits and drawbacks of mycoremediation. Not sure if I agree with all the points but it’s a bit of food for thought. Comments?
- Public acceptance: It is a natural system, and does not introduce any corrosives or other chemicals for cleanup. In most cases, researchers use only native species on every site.
- Natural: The fungal systems approach corrects an imbalance due to a contamination event or situation, and ultimately restores the natural function and balance of the system, bringing the contaminants within levels within the ecosystem that are no longer harmful.
- Safety: Mycoremediation is expected to be safer than most other alternatives and it does not require digging up contaminated products, and disposing of it at waste sites. Additionally, the process does not produce secondary waste streams that require additional cleanup after the initial remediation.
- Quiet: The technology is quieter than many alternatives, there are no structures, no machinery, and no noise. The system takes a day to set up, much like a landscaping project, and then left to do its work
- Low maintenance: There is minimal handling and low maintenance of sites treated with fungi. On the other hand, bioremediation using bacteria or fertilizers and phytoremediation requires repeated application, weekly or biweekly tilling and turning, a lot of labor and maintenance.
- Reusable end products: The end product of mycoremediation is nontoxic. The enriched and cleaned soil can be used for landscaping, road underlayment, or other purposes.
- Low cost: The cost of using mycoremediation is relatively low in comparison to other technologies, as it it does not require building of new structures to house and process materials
- Flexible: The size of the application can vary without any problem, and can be the size of a bucket, to acres across. Additionally, fungal treatments can work in almost any habitat and season.
- Fast: The technology shows immediate results. There is immediate mitigation of odor and visible improvement to a site. For end results, mycoremediation is quicker than other technologies, such as phytoremediation and bacterial bioremediation. These treatments may require one to three years or more, and cannot address all the contaminants that fungus can attack. Fungal treatment requires weeks to months.
- Still in testing: Organizations that currently want to use the technology for cleanups are finding it a hard sell to their decision makers, as it is a technology that is unproven, and often times, those decision makers want to rely on proven technologies.
- Applicability: There are many approaches to remediation; and certain ones are suitable in particular situations. For example, there are methods for sediment remediation that call for construction of incineration plants, or factories that turn the contaminated sediment into useful products such as glass, aggregate, tile, etc. In a case in which there is continuous, year-round dredging of a harbor such as New York/New Jersey, with an endless supply of this sediment, this strategy can be useful. Mycoremediation in this case would be too slow, and the space required for treatment or storage of materials could be prohibitive.
- Efficiency level: Biological systems are never 100% efficient, which is difficult for some end-users to understand.
- Surrounding environment: The use of a natural system can run into problems with the competitive natural environment in some areas, or with seasonal efficiency in extreme habitats.