We live today in environments polluted with plastics. And increasingly, public discourse is polluted with them too: from the image of a drinking straw being pulled from a turtle’s nose to reports of microplastics mingling inside all living beings.
Amid this awareness of their destructive impact, significant resources are now being invested in researching alternatives. In particular, researchers have been excited by the capacity of fungi to not only grow alternatives to plastic, but to potentially remediate toxicants that have leached into our environments through unmanaged plastic pollution.
The Californian start-up Mycoworks has developed patented fine mycelium leather.1 It’s made by combining waste plant material and the mycelium roots of the reishi mushroom. In New York, the packaging company Ecovative, has created reishi-based styrofoam alternatives and in London, start-up BIOHM is currently developing mycelium-based insulation.2
It is gratifying to look to fungi to help us undo the harm perpetuated by extractive economic systems. But is fungi’s emerging status as saviour disguising another form of extraction?
This is a question that troubles many mycological thinkers. David Satori, founder of fungal conservation project Rewilding Mycology, had a massive re-think as it dawned upon him ‘that the utilitarian approach to working with fungi shouldn’t be the force that drives the development of mycology as a discipline’, and that it should instead ‘come from a desire to understand and support the incredible species we co-inhabit this planet with’.3
For Sophie Strand, a storyteller who interweaves diverse mythology with the equally diverse world of mycology, it’s a question of how fungi can ‘teach us to become involved in general aliveness instead of in this very narrow idea of human survival’.4
It is dangerous to wish solely to extract, especially from a relationship that already nurtures us in timescales and ways we humans can barely grasp. Fungi have been evolutionary guardians to plants, showing them how to develop complex root structures. Even their reproductive spores have been theorised to be ‘cloud seeds’: they host hygroscopic sugars which condense water in the atmosphere, ultimately leading to rainfall.5
So how do we help each other to move away from extraction and into systems of good relations with all species? Dr Max Liboiron, a Métis geographer who centres the indigenous concept of accountability to relationships while studying plastic pollution and its effects on indigenous food webs, illustrates how their lab resists western research institutions’ colonial desire to extract from nature by detailing relationships within their methodology.
In their book, Pollution is Colonialism, they set out to ‘show how methodology is a way of being in the world and that ways of being are tied up in obligation’, and a way they enacted within the book is through detailed footnotes which lovingly acknowledge the impact that the work of others has had on their methodology.6 A methodological practice I have taken from the book is simply to be mindful of the origins of the fungi samples I work with, just like Dr. Liboiron’s team does with the fish guts they analyse for evidence of plastic pollution.
Being mindful of our relationships can help us stay continually concerned with the question of to whom are we obligated: to our fellow humans, to the more-than-human world, or even to the creation of our hypothetical future?
While it is important for innovating companies to develop alternatives to plastic, they also must outline their methodology. We can’t replace extraction with more extraction: instead, we need non-extractive practices that show an awareness of the varying needs of the diverse relationships that support our earth’s existence.
- Mycoworks: official website, mycoworks.com
- Ecovative: official website, ecovative.com; ‘Biohm: Mycelium & Food Waste to Create Regenerative Construction Materials’, vegconomist’, 12 January 2023, nin.tl/BIOH
- David Satori, ‘Can fungi really save the world?’, rewilding_mycology, Instagram, 14 December 2022, nin.tl/Satori
- ‘[Full Interview] The Inner Lives of Fungi - with Sophie Strand’, Lifeworlds (podcast), nin.tl/Strand
- Benjamin Thompson, ‘Fungal spores: the root of rain?’, Microbiology Society, 9 September 2015, nin.tl/FungiRain
- Max Liboiron, Pollution is Colonialism, Duke University Press, 2021.