This Device Turns Plastic Trash Into Edible Mushrooms

A team of microbiologists and designers have collaborated to create a system for growing plastic-decomposing, edible fungi.

​A team of microbiologists and designers wants our future food to pull double duty by breaking down man-made trash while growing tasty treats.

The Fungi Mu​tarium is a prototype device that uses fungi to safely break down plastic and grow edible, fluffy biomass in its place.

Here's how it works: small bits of thin plastic—like the kind that make up shopping bags—are doused in UV light to sterilize them and start to break the plastic down. The plastic is then placed in a small pod made of agar, an edible, algae-based gelatin. The pods are placed in the "growth sphere", a dome-like incubator.

Next, liquified fungi sprouts are dribbled into the agar pods. After just a few weeks, edible fungi begin to grow and cover the pod. After several months, the fungi will completely decompose the plastic, leaving you with nothing but a natural, edible growth.

Video: LIVIN Studio 

Two Vienna-based industrial designers created the mutarium in collaboration with microbiologists from the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands. Katharina Unger, one of the designers, said she and her colleague were interested in working with ingredients that are not usually considered food. They were paired up with Han Wösten, the head of the biology department at Utrecht, through the Bio Art & Design award, a grant that connects scientists with designers.

"We were both really inspired about the idea that something digests plastic but then still creates edible biomass," Unger told me over the phone from Vienna.

The fungi used come from the mycelium, or roots, of oyster mushrooms and split gill mushrooms, two of the most popular mushrooms in the world.

Once the plastic has fully degraded, the harvested pods can be eaten whole and have a mild taste, Unger said.

"It starts off being very neutral, but it can also get a bit nutty and spicy in taste. It really depends on the strain, actually."

But the neutral taste makes the pods versatile. The team also crafted recipes for serving the pods that ranged from a savoury version with seaweed and caviar to a sweet dish with peaches and yogurt.

A fungi pod dressed up with seaweed and caviar. Image: Paris Tsitsos, Livin Studio

After several months of experiments, the team revealed their prototype online earlier this month. Unger and her design studio, Li​vin, have made hea​dlines in the past for future-thinking devices like a countertop incubator that grows edible maggots. She said the aim is to create singular solutions to a range of problems from food waste to pollution.

But don't expect to be growing plastic-destroying mushrooms on your kitchen countertop any time soon; the mutarium is still in the research phase. The multiple-months-long process to break down the tiny bits of plastic is a major roadblock to mass use, Unger said.

"We know that there's potential to speed up this process simply by optimizing the processes around it: temperature, humidity, the perfect microclimate for this fungi to colonize the plastic material," she said.

"Also, though it's more controversial, there is genetic modification. What happens if you modify the organism so that it can process the materials more quickly?"

For now, they're seeking more funding to continue to develop the mutarium and are hopeful the design itself will inspire people to start challenging ideas about what we expect from our food.

"We were mainly there in the lab to ask questions that designers ask and stimulate our researchers to think differently about the work that they're doing and also about the possible applications of it," Unger said.