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The fungi farm that turns plastic into food

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The fungi farm that turns plastic into food
The Fungi Mutarium. Photo: Paris Tsitsos
12:45 CET+01:00
An Austrian design duo have come up with a way to break down waste plastic and turn it into a nutritious food that humans can eat.

In collaboration with Utrecht University, Katharina Unger and Julia Kaisinger (of Livin Studio) have developed a working model of an incubator - called the Fungi Mutarium - that takes parts of mushrooms that are usually left uneaten and grows them into fresh food - using not soil, but waste plastic.

It may sound unappetising but the texture, taste and flavour of the foodstuff depends upon the strain of fungus used, and reportedly can be quite strong, as well as sweet. “The ones I’ve eaten have had quite a neutral flavour but some strains taste nuttier, and more interesting,” Unger told The Local.

She does admit that if the project takes off there will be some hurdles to overcome in persuading people to eat something that is grown on waste material. "However, there are currently so many things within industrial food processes that are potentially toxic, so it's really a matter of educating people", she added. 

The fungi breaks down the plastic ingredients but doesn't store them, meaning they are edible. 

Unger and Kaisinger are known for their innovative work on insect farms, and are interested in technologies which can help people farm under extreme environmental conditions.

How it works

The Fungi Mutarium grows edible fungal biomass, mainly the mycelia - the thread-like body of the fungus which contains proteins and minerals.

The mushrooms that we buy in grocery stores are actually just a small visible part of the organism - similar to a flower blossom.

In the Fungi Mutarium the mycelium is cultivated on specifically designed agar shapes, which the designers call FU.  

Agar is a seaweed based gelatin substitute and acts, when mixed with starch and sugar, as a nutrient base for the fungi.

The FUs are filled with waste plastic, which has been sterilized with UV light - a process which also speeds up the degradation process of the plastic, making it easier for the fungi to feed off it.

Fungi sprouts in a liquid nitrogen solution are then inserted in the FU. They digest the plastic and grow on the surface of the FU. After a period of time, the FU is ready to be prepared with other ingredients and eaten.

A FU which is garnished with vegetables and ready to eat. Photo: Paris Tsitsos

“We worked with fungi named Schizophyllum Commune and Pleurotus Ostreatus. They are found throughout the world and can be seen on a wide range of timbers and many other plant-based substrates virtually anywhere in Europe, Asia, Africa, the Americas and Australia.

They digest toxic waste materials, and are also commonly eaten,” Unger explained.

Currently the digestion of the plastic is a relatively slow process, taking up to a few months for a set of cultures to fully mature - but still a lot faster than the time it takes for plastic to biodegrade in nature.

The Fungi Mutarium is a conceptual device that presents ongoing research and is currently not a commercially available product.

Unger and Kaisinger are currently looking for collaborators who will help fund the next steps for their research - which will look at how to make the process faster and more efficient.

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