They’re smelly, icky, stinky, nasty, and gross – dirty baby diapers. And not only do they account for a significant volume of waste in our landfills, but they are also nearly indestructible and remain in the landfills for hundreds of years without degrading. Short of throwing out the baby with the wastewater (a suggestion one of the lab rats put forth), what do we do with all those nasty diapers? Researchers think they may have an answer – grow mushrooms in them!
Diapers are made from polyethylene, polypropylene, an absorbent gel made from sodium polyacrylate, and a plant-based material called cellulose. Luckily, disposable diapers contain a significant portion of cellulose, a substance that mushrooms love to consume. Researchers took the dirty diapers and sterilized them with high-pressure steam. They then ground up the diapers and mixed them with the pressed remains of grapes and coffee (grapes and coffee contain a substance known as lignin, a woody material that mushrooms need in order to grow). Finally, they spread fungus spores all over the icky mixture and put them in a sealed plastic bag where they were kept in the dark for three weeks.
After a few weeks, the researchers carefully opened the plastic bags and very cautiously, peaked inside. As expected, growing happily in the icky diaper mixture were perfectly healthy oyster mushrooms (actually, nine out of ten doctors expected the result – one of the ten researchers expected to find a giant poop baby). Over the course of ten weeks, the mushrooms had reduced the volume and weight of the diaper mixture by up to 80 percent. More than ¾ of the diaper material had been consumed by the mushrooms!
The scientists then tested (and the brave ones – tasted!) the mushrooms and found that they contained normal amounts of protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals. The mushrooms were edible! The researchers then proposed that the mushrooms be used in cattle feed or sold to schools as a supplement to school lunches.