Have you ever looked at a plastic bag and thought, fuck, that looks delicious? If not, perhaps a new device called the Fungi Mutarium will change your mind. Unveiled last week by the Austrian design and innovation firm L I V I N, the contraption uses the roots of common mushrooms to degrade plastic placed within their agar (the fungi's nutrient base), then allows humans to harvest and consume the byproduct.
L I V I N, which bills itself as a collaboration of designers, scientists, and culinary artists interested in bringing us closer to our food, has made some strange products before. Their Farm 432 is a self-harvesting maggot protein producer, and their Phora is… a wine vape? But this latest design may be the most radical. The world would have applauded the simple fact that the process can, in the space of a few months, break down plastics that degrade naturally over 20 to 1,000 years, but the team took it one step further and found a way to turn the byproduct into something edible. At least in theory. They've even developed a new line of cutlery to use on the jelly-like pods.
Yesterday Motherboard broke down how the Fungi Mutarium works, and today VICE caught up with L I V I N leader and one of two product designers Katharina Unger to talk about pushing the boundaries of edibility and adapting to our industrial reality by putting plastic into the human food chain.
VICE: Which came first, the idea of working with plastic or the idea of working with fungi?
Katherina Unger: The idea of working with fungi, actually. The work was initiated through the Bio Art & Design Award. It's a Dutch award that matches designers with research institutes to push forward research and see where the boundaries are—find new applications for great scientific research.
Before we decided to look into the plastic matter, we were really fascinated by the mycelium. So usually we eat the mushrooms, which is basically everything that comes out of the soil, and the mycelium are, more or less, the roots and the majority of the fungus. The texture and the flavor of the mycelium is often very similar, if not the same as the mushroom itself.
We've been eating mushrooms for quite a long time. Why do you think we haven't messed with the mycelium before?
It's easier to harvest just from the soil rather than going under the soil. You would need to clean it up before you eat it. And I think it's also because the roots are the main thing, so if you take it all out, it can't reproduce.
And where did the plastic enter into it?
We were really interested in going a step further [than existing research on mycelium] and seeing what's the limit that you can induce the fungus to eat and what's still edible. And our research partner said that they have the potential to degrade even plastic waste. So we thought, OK, we're going to research that.
You talk about pushing the borders of what would be edible. Did you explore any substances that didn't work out?
If the matter is too toxic, then the fungus will not grow. One measure of how safe it is to eat, or if you can eat it, is if the fungi doesn't even grow. If it gets too crazy, it will die itself.
So we did test malachite green—it's a dye matter that's used in the textile industry and in some other related industries. If you put the fungus into the liquid that malachite green is in, then they will basically degrade it as well. But we made tests where we put a lot of the malachite green into the probe, and then the fungi really died. So it can take quite a bit of toxic material, but there are limits.
So you always had the idea of making this into something edible, but how did you guys feel when it came time to find out, if I eat this product, what's it going to do to me?
Yeah, it's certainly strange. At this moment in time we have no specific data that we can release to say it is fully safe to eat and there will be no trace [toxic] elements. We have research that tells us it is possible. But what remains is this strange gut feeling about eating something that's been eating waste.
But I think that in the normal food chain, or in the industrial process, there are sometimes toxic elements that come in, even in the packaging. Soups are packaged in cans that, over a while, the aluminum is also diluting into the soup, and also becoming slightly toxic. There's no way to totally protect us from anything that comes in through an industrial process or from growing outside.
So basically we have to embrace the industrial reality that we live in?
I think that it's important to come up with a lot of ideas on how we can deal with things. Our environment is getting increasingly wasteful and we have to find new measures of coping with it, like finding ways to farm on more and more extreme land, for example.
Have you eaten it yourself?
What was that like?
I think it is definitely strange. Also the type of [jelly-like] food product that we developed is not something that as Westerners we eat all the time. So already without the fungi it is a strange new food—but quite exciting.
What is your vision for this food?
It won't be approved as a food anytime soon. But even if we can optimize these processes to efficiently degrade plastic matter through a biological organism, that's already a huge step ahead.
The device itself looks super-futuristic, like something that would be in the background of a 1980s sci-fi movie.
Was that your goal?
No! It just seems that these projects turn out this way for some reason. But I think it deserves it! It's kind of a crazy idea and I think that it deserves a special form as well.
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