Clean Waste, Clean Water


Clean Waste, Clean Water:
The blessings of waste management innovations
By Katie Clancy

Welcome to´s think tank, a hub where we can share ideas, dispel myths, advertize gatherings, and dialogue about a common passion: clean water.
Okay, let me get us started.
Our quest for clean water these days is a viscous paradox. The majority of us seek clean water in plastic, which, of course, pollutes clean water. Advertisers sell us ¨purity¨ at the same time as their products are contaminating the oceans, hurting wildlife, and filling landfills.  Maybe it´s our culture´s addiction to convenience that is dragging us down. We are a world where single-use disposable packaging (plastic bottles, bags, and cups) is the number one consumer product in the world. Plastic bottle production in the US annually alone requires about 17.6 million barrels of oil, which really seems in vain when we realize that 86 percent of those plastic water bottles are not recycled. Every year, 100 billion plastic bags are used. In fact, if each person were required to carry the average amount of packing they consumed in one year, we would each be dragging 800 pound bags on our backs.

If we really want to stand witness to the purification of our waters on an ecological level, let´s take a good look at our waste. Luckily, new advancements aim to knock plastic out of the water—literally. Those innovations, which include plantable packaging by mushroom guru Paul Stamets, provide a solution to building new dreams using the ruins of old pleasures.Stamets is known for his groundbreaking research in mycroremediation using mycelium (aka fungus) to respond to environmental crisis. Mycelium is a network of cells that acts as a filter, improving water quality and reducing erosion by trapping sediment, harmful bacteria, and nutrients that escape during runoff.  Stamets has dedicated his life to using mushrooms to clean up polluted land and water environments that have suffered from over farming, toxic dumping, and heavy metal pollution. Known as the Earth´s ¨great recyclers¨, mycelium has powerful enzymes that breakdown hydrocarbons and suck up heavy metals to repair a site and bring it back to life.

His devotion to fungi has led him to revolutionize the packaging industry with his new product, The Life Box.  Forget recycling—with The Life Box, you can literally grow a forest from the box in which you ship everyday objects!  It looks like ordinary cardboard, but each box has hundreds of tree seeds and thousands of mycorrhizal fungal spores infused into the corrugations of the cardboard. After delivery of goods, the Life Box can grow a tree nursery.
This beats plastic corn cups and regular recycling on every level. Even Coca Cola´s new ¨Plant Bottle¨ that is made of 30% Brazilian sugarcane ( hasn’t solved the way to move out of petroleum-based recycling.
Permaculture pioneer Penny Livingston, recently featured in Joao Amorim´s film ¨2012: Time for Change¨ described our current corporate design as one that transforms ¨a living system into a dead, [non-renewable] system. But as we become conscience to reduce what we consume, and we invest in new technologies like The Life Box that are igniting a 360 degree shift from this cycle.
The Life Box isn´t directly connected to mushrooms, but taking another lesson from its creators, we can see that mycelium has huge potential for healing our relationship to waste.
Katie Holgate, a mushroom ecologist, is in the process of developing microfiltration systems that transform homogenized, polluted habitats into biodiverse systems using mycelium.  In order to start that process, she must become very intimate with her garbage.  She uses certain waste products such as compost, cardboard, old newspapers, spent coffee grounds, burlap bags to sprout the spores on, giving value to what is ordinarily thought as useless.

¨Working with mushrooms has transformed my personal relationship to trash.  Like many people, I used to be in denial about what I was consuming and where it went beyond a landfill.  But Stamet´s work with mushrooms really inspired my relationship to waste management.  Instead of it being worthless, I have found the value in what we throw away.  In that sense, trash is a precious resource,¨ Holgate said.  The benefits of using this mycelium in the environment, she adds, are imperative to strengthening the immunity of the ecosystem.

It´s might not be convenient, but let´s honor waste streams as we do water: as a valuable resource rather than a property or consumable product.

Stay tuned for the next installment of Iwater´s Ecology Blog!

In the meantime, learn more about The Life Box and Stamet´s current research, at

Written by Katie Clancy



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