5 ways mushrooms may save the world

Valeria Vlasova
4 min read

Mushrooms are small and delicious things that are growing on the ground or on trees. The above-ground portion is referred to as the fruit body, but below ground, it’s a larger fungal organism which is connected to a huge network of thin, microscopic threads called mycelium (1). In fact, in 1998, scientists determined that the largest organism on Earth, at least by area covered, was a fungus in Oregon’s Blue Mountains whose mycelium spanned over 2,000 acres underground (1).

We love mushrooms not only for their taste or health benefits, but also for their wide range of use. Here are some of the most intriguing spheres where fungi are used, but in a sustainable way and with a care for the environment. 

Leather substitutes

Following the trend, mushrooms are one of the most unexpected and promising candidates in the race for searching for renewable and sustainable leather substitutes. Mushrooms contain chitinous polymers and grow really fast, and after physical and chemical treatments sheets of fungal biomass visually resemble leather – it’s a breathable, flexible, robust material and can last for years (2). The production of this mycelium “leather” consumes less water and uses vertical farming to save some space, produces fewer emissions and requires none of the chemicals used in plastic-based materials.

Indonesian start-up Mycotech was one of pioneers in using fungi to create a sustainable alternative to leather products, especially shoes. Luckily, not only small-scale companies are turning to a new sustainable material, but also market giants like Adidas which is now also marketing mycelium shoes (3).

Foam & Bricks

Fungal foams are becoming increasingly popular for their various ways of using. A flexible and spongy foam from mycelium is suitable for products such as facial sponges, artificial skin, ink and dye carriers, shoe insoles, lightweight insulation lofts, cushioning, soft furnishings and textiles, sustainable packaging materials (e.g. IKEA is one company that has indicated a commitment to using them), insulation, flooring and panelling (4).

Moreover, mushrooms could be used in construction. One of the greatest examples is living fungus bricks by Hy-Fi. The bricks are grown in molds, and it takes them five days to go from organic mush to solid brick. They’re light, but also durable and weatherproof (5).


Another great trait of fungi is chitin that is contained in fungal filaments. Chitin has a fibrous structure, similar to cellulose in wood, which allows fungal fibre to be processed into sheets the same way paper is made. Surprisingly, when stretched, fungal papers are even stronger than many plastics! (4)

Water purification

With a few simple steps of chemical modification fungal chitin could be turned into chitosan. Chitosan is electrically charged and can be used to attract heavy metal ions. Thus, when combined with a mycelium filament network that is intricate enough to prevent solids, bacteria and even viruses from passing through, chitosan may be used as an environmentally friendly membrane with impressive water purification properties. (4)

Waste treatment

Mushrooms are well-known for their ability to deal with organic waste. Moreover, presently they are the only organisms that can synthesize and excrete the relevant hydrolytic and oxidative enzymes that enable them to degrade complex organic substrates into soluble substances, which can then be absorbed by the mushrooms for their nutrients (6).

For example, Pleurotus pulmonarius var. stechangii (an oyster mushroom) is the most adaptable one and can be grown on a wide variety of agricultural waste materials of differing composition, because it can excrete both sides kinds of cellulose- and lignin-degrading enzymes (6).

Mushrooms can also compost some synthetic plastics. In this process, the plastic is buried in regulated soil and its byproducts are digested by specific fungi as it degrades (3).

Another great use of fungi is in wastewater treatments through a popular technique known as mycoremediation. With the help of fungi such techniques can break down or absorb oils, pollutants, toxins, dyes and heavy metals (4).