Mussel filters and fungus recycling: Five projects win £1m to tackle plastic waste

Mushrooms that can break down plastic waste, mussels that can filter microplastics from the water, and a technological solution to lost fishing gear have all received funding from Waitrose & Partners.

Five projects in total, out of more than 150 applicants, have been awarded a share of £1 million to address plastic waste from land to sea. The funding comes from Plan Plastic, an initiative by Waitrose & Partners that offers grants of between £150,000 and £300,000, money raised from the sale of five pence plastic carrier bags in Waitrose stores. The fund is being overseen by environmental charity Hubbub.

1. Tracking technology for fishing gear

Image of tangled fishing nets in the ocean
SAFEGEAR aims to help people track their gear so nets don't get lost
SAFEGEAR has been developed by the Blue Marine Foundation (BLUE), a charity working to establish sustainable models of fishing. Lost fishing gear is a major contributor to ocean plastic waste; it is estimated that a yearly 640,000 tonnes of fishing gear (such as nets, lines and traps) are lost in the oceans worldwide – often due to other boats accidentally running into the gear and towing it away, which is costly for businesses who then have to replace their lost nets.

Since most modern fishing gear is made of plastic (designed to be hard-wearing and long-lasting), the lost kit does not break down in the water but persists, often snagged on rocks and reefs, where it will inadvertently capture sea creatures. A report by World Animal Protection suggests that more than 100,000 whales, dolphins, seals and turtles are caught in so-called ghost gear every year. Moreover, plastic gear will eventually break down into smaller pieces of plastic, which can be eaten by fish mistaking them for food.

SAFEGEAR sees electronic beacons fitted onto standard fishing gear markers, so they can be viewed digitally from on board vessels. With funding from Waitrose the initiative will be trialled in Plymouth. Dan Crockett, Head of Operations at BLUE, said: “This simple idea could be an absolute game-changer for fishermen and the marine environment. Existing AtoN (aids to navigation) used by other marine users to identify hazards at sea don’t really fit onto existing fishing markers that fishermen use.

“We are confident that we will be able to design and produce a beacon that is fit for purpose and a project that can be scalable and work elsewhere in the UK and World Oceans.”

2. Recycling with fungus

In Somerset, a plastics recycling facility with a twist is in development. Biohm is planning to establish a ‘first of its kind’ bio-recycling plant, which will use mycelium (the roots of fungi) to break down waste. Working in partnership with Onion Collective, a community interest group in Watchet, where the facility will be based, Biohm is hoping to utilise the power of fungi to turn plastic waste into new products.

The partners will be using the Waitrose funding to develop its plastics research facility, which will be situated alongside a recycling plant that will process agricultural and organic waste. ‘To begin with we intend to work directly with major manufacturers and industry partners, using their waste as a feedstock for mycelium… and the resultant grown material as a valuable resource for product manufacture,’ writes the Onion Collective on its website.

3. Plastic-free periods

A campaign by plastic waste charity City to Sea and the Women’s Environmental Network (WEN), the Environmenstrual campaign aims to tackle the waste produced by the 4.3 billion disposable menstrual products that are used every year in the UK alone.

The behaviour change campaign is raising awareness of reusable period products, including washable cotton pads, menstrual cups and absorbent period pants. It also provides information about plastic-free, organic disposable options, and educates people about the problems caused by flushing their menstrual products instead of binning them.

4. Water refill stations

With Waitrose funding, the Youth Hostel Association (YHA) will be installing free water bottle refill stations in 60 major youth hostels.

A water fountain for reusable bottles instead of single-use
60 YHA youth hostels will have refill stations installed
YHA is a youth charity that runs 150 hostels and 45 campsites in England and Wales. In 2018 it joined the Refill scheme, a national initiative promoting free tap water to reduce the consumption of single-use plastic bottles, and has been trialling water refill stations in 26 hostels. James Blake, Chief Executive of YHA (England and Wales), said at the timet: “The Refill initiative is helping us make greater progress in further reducing not only our own carbon footprint, but that of the thousands of young people and their families who stay with us and visit our youth hostels each year.”

The charity previously committed to banning single-use plastic straws from all its locations. Rolling out the water refill stations across the entire hostel network could save 500,000 plastic bottles from use in YHA’s packed lunches for school groups, as well as enabling all visitors to fill up their bottles and stay hydrated.

5. ‘Mussel power’ microplastic filters

In Plymouth, a project is researching the feasibility of using mussels to safely filter microplastics out of estuaries and coastal areas.

Microplastics have been shown to be ever-present in our waters and in the food chain, with one study from Plymouth University finding minute pieces of plastic smaller than 5 millimetres in 36.5 per cent of fish analysed. Another study of a sample of wild mussels from around the UK coastline found 100 per cent contained microplastics or microfibres.

Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML) is hoping to explore how the natural mechanism of mussels – which feed by filtering the water for plankton – could be used purposefully to filter plastics out of the environment. So-called ‘bioreefs’ of mussels could be placed in coastal locations to remove the tiny plastics, which are nigh on impossible for humans to remove from the environment with current technology.

PML scientist Dr Matthew Cole said: “We are delighted to have received funding from Waitrose and Hubbub UK to explore whether mussels could help play a role in stemming the flow of microplastics from source to sea. Microplastics are a persistent and widespread pollutant, and our research has highlighted the negative effects they can have on sensitive marine species.”

You can find out more about the Plan Plastic initiative on the project’s website.

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