Mushrooms Can Help Clean the World

We often think of mushrooms for eating, but they have tremendous powers beyond nutrition. . (Photo: nullplus/Shutterstock)

Mushrooms, which have quietly been breaking down dead plants for millennia, are finally getting recognized as the multitalented superstars they are. As if cycling important nutrients back into the soil so new life can flourish isn't enough, it turns out that the humble fungi can perform lots of other useful tasks.

Mushroom mycelium, the branch-like filaments in a fungus, can be grown into a multitude of shapes, paving the way for them to replace plastics for packaging, furniture and even car parts. Products made with mushrooms use far fewer resources to manufacture, considering mushrooms don't need light or other power supplies to grow. And unlike plastics, they're biodegradable. They also can be made into building materials, fabric for clothing and might be the key to fighting antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

And of course, you can eat many (but not all) mushrooms — they're both tasty and packed with minerals and micronutrients, with almost no calories.

If you just hate scrubbing stains out of laundry, mushrooms have you covered there, too.

Keeping the environment clean

Denmark-based Novozyme already has made a couple billion dollars providing mushroom enzymes to big names in detergents like Tide and Seventh Generation. And Novozyme has found those mushrooms right in their own backyard. Scientists at the company have pulled them out of fungi collected in the forest near Copenhagen.

What's the connection between a bright-orange shelf mushroom growing in the woods and clean clothes? The idea is that if a mushroom can break down tough plant cellulose, which we've all seen mushrooms do as a matter of course (as they turn a giant tree into a pile of soft soil), then those same chemicals can work for us, too. The enzymes that the 'shrooms exude speed up decay, so they could break down other things, like sweat stains on a shirt collar.

The mushroom-produced enzymes also could reduce the amount of water needed to get clothes clean, or lower the temperature at which a typical detergent is effective. "A tenth of a teaspoon of enzymes in a typical European laundry load cuts by half the amount of soap from petrochemicals or palm oil in a detergent," according to The New York Times. That saves money and energy.

In turn, more effective cold-water washing could pave the way for everyone to adopt the method (60 percent of Americans still use warm water to wash clothes). Washing in cold water saves significant energy — 75-90 percent of the energy used to wash a load of laundry goes into heating water. If all Americans switched to cold-water washes, we'd save the equivalent of 100,000 barrels of oil a year, according to Cornell University.

And that impact could be even larger outside the U.S. Among China's growing middle class, clothes cleaning is frequent and attention to detail is important. Getting the millions of people there to stay away from warm-water washing means these mushroom-derived enzymatic cleaners are actually a way to fight climate change. But for that, super-effective detergents that can keep clothes clean sans hot water, or with reduced volumes of detergent or water, are necessary.

Yet again, the natural world is providing the answer to a pressing need.

“We think there are a lot of systems and processes in nature that are extremely resource efficient,” Gerard Bos, director of the global business and biodiversity program at the International Union for Conservation of Nature in Switzerland, said to The Times. “In nature, there is basically no waste. Every material gets reused.”