• The UN oceans chief warns we are facing a 'planetary crisis' due to our plastic use.
  • Researchers hope to replace synthetic materials with biodegradable fungi.

It is clear that plastic pollution is killing wildlife in our oceans, from the tiniest plankton to lumbering wales. What is less obvious, however, is how to dramatically, yet practically reduce our use of the substance to prevent further devastation. Some scientists believe that mushrooms and other fungi could hold the answer.

But they will have to act fast. Every year, 225m tonnes of plastic is produced, while 91% of plastic is not recycled, according to researchers at the University of Georgia. Side effects include the giant garbage patch floating in the Pacific Ocean, and harrowing images of dead seabirds with detritus in their bellies, or turtles with straws up their noses.

On Monday (4 November), the UN oceans chief Lisa Svensson told BBC News that in the century since we discovered the convenience of plastics "we are ruining the ecosystem of the ocean". She described the current situation as a "planetary crisis". Her warning follows David Attenborough's pleas to viewers of BBC's Blue Planet II to rethink their plastic use.

This is where mushrooms come into play. Scientists and environmentalists want to replace synthetic materials, that can take centuries to biodegrade, with natural fibres. Researchers at the Utrecht University in the Netherlands are among teams investigating how this can be achieved. Most recently, scientists at the Department of Biology harnessed mycelia, the thin filaments which compose fungi. They were able to show how fungus cannot only grow inside and decompose natural waste, but can also be formed into moulds. The resulting shapes are baked to kill the bacteria and halt development.

"The fungal hyphae (filamentous cells) that grow through the substrate bind the particles in the waste stream together both acting as rope and glue," Han Wösten, professor of Microbiology, at Utrecht University, tells IBTimes UK.

"As such a composite is formed that is similar to plastic-like materials or wood panels. However, in this case the material is pure biological without the use of oil or chemicals." The team plans to continue working with different types of waste and growth conditions to create a product that can be marketed to compete with mass-produced plastic.

A project with a similar goal at Cambridge University saw researchers discover that the moth larvae can degrade plastic, BBC News reported. And Nasa is investigating the use of mushrooms and microbial cement to build on Mars, according to Motherboard.

US-based firm Ecovative has meanwhile created fungal packaging material. World-leading brands including Dell and Ikea have stated they want to explore if oil-based plastic packaging material could be replaced by the material, says Professor Wösten.

But is not already too late to save the planet? "We should always be optimistic," explains Professor Wösten. "Lets save the planet by starting now to replace plastics with bio-based materials.

"The problem is that oil-based plastics are too cheap," he adds. "Prices will increase when oil becomes less available but this will not happen in the decade to come. Governments should subsidise materials that will be competitive in the future but are too expensive at this moment."

Consumers have an important role to play, too, he concludes: "The industry listens to the customers. If the customers stop buying plastic, industry will change."