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Mushrooms Offer Solutions for Environment and Economy

Oyster mushroom grows on coffee grounds

Quiet as they may be, mushrooms have been making headlines as of late. It turns out the fungi kingdom is capable of fixing some of our species’ biggest environmental gaffes, and boosting the economy while it's at it. Paired with a little human ingenuity, mushrooms could be our ticket to a viable future. 

In toxic waste sites “so steeped in oil, dioxins, and other chemicals that hardly anything can grow on them,” fungi have become part of a plan for accelerated clean-up, reports Michael J. Coren for Fast Company. Under the guidance of Mohamed Hijri, a biologist and professor at the University of Montreal, a few of nature’s heavy-hitters will be introduced to such sites to work their magic. First, willow trees will be planted densely to absorb heavy metals. The trees will then be burned, their ashes used as food for fungi and bacteria able to metabolize petrochemical waste. Fungi selection is still underway, but has a big payoff. A process that might have taken hundreds of years (or longer) can be accomplished in just a few. 

Mushrooms are also linking young entrepreneurs to a green living, writes Sarah Stankorb in GOOD. Inspired by a class in business ethics, would-be consultants and investment bankers Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez instead opted to invest in closing the food-to-soil loop. During their final semester, the young men began growing mushrooms in a bucket of used coffee grounds. With a little legwork and a $5,000 grant from UC Berkeley, they soon had a deal to collect grounds from a west coast chain, Peet’s Coffee, in which they would grow mushrooms for northern California Whole Foods stores. Soon their company, Back to the Roots, was making money for both grounds collection and mushroom sales. As if that weren’t enough, they’re giving away the used grounds (complete with mushroom substrate) to local gardeners for compost. 

Discovery of the beneficial uses of mushrooms is not entirely new. Mycologist Paul Stamets has been working to bring awareness to the possibilities for decades. He made major breakthroughs in 2008 with his TED talk, "Paul Stamets on 6 ways mushrooms can save the world" and acknowledgement from Utne Reader, which named him one the 50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World. Looks like his ideas have spread, taking shape in inspiring new forms. 

Sources: Fast Company, GOOD  

Image: Oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus) mycelium growing in a petri dish on coffee grounds. By Tobi Kellner, licensed under Creative Commons.