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Plastic-eating fungi developed in Waitrose’s £1m sustainability challenge

Supermarket chain Waitrose has funded five projects with “real impact” in combating plastic pollution, including the development of fungi that can quickly digest plastic waste.

In a report published today, the supermarket set out the progress the five projects have made in the two years since it launched Plan Plastic – The Million Pound Challenge with environmental charity Hubbub.

Chosen from 150 applicants, the five winners received between £150,000 to £300,000 to rethink how people use and dispose of plastic, tackle plastic pollution and “create tangible impact and leave a lasting legacy”.

The projects are:

Safegear by the Blue Marine Foundation

Aim: Develop a cost-effective beacon to track fishing gear lost at sea

Reason: Lost fishing gear – “ghost gear” – makes up as much as 46% of marine pollution with more than 700,000 tonnes of lost gear entering the ocean each year

Progress: The team has developed a beacon to tag fishing gear and trials are ongoing; data on the impact of ghost gear is carried out by the University of Plymouth and will be published in 2021

Community bio-recycling by the Onion Collective and Biohm

Aim: To develop and train a strain of mycelium – the root structure of mushrooms – that will digest plastic waste at an accelerated rate

Reason: The potential to digest hard-to-recycle plastics, grow them into a sustainable construction material and create a new community industry

Progress: It has developed and trained four strains of mycelium; formed a partnership to build a new community-based bio-manufacturing industry in Watchet, Somerset; further research planned into mycelium that absorbs and consumes plastic particles

Mussel power by Plymouth Marine Laboratory

Aim: Explore whether ‘mussel power’ could help remove microplastics from polluted estuaries and coastal waters

Reason: The amount of plastic that ends up in the ocean is equivalent to about one full rubbish truck dumped into the sea every minute, and mussels are known to filter out waterborne microplastics

Progress: The project has shown that 5kg of mussels can filter out over 250,000 microplastics per hour, with potential for use near point-sources of pollution such as wastewater treatment plants; PML has secured funding to develop the research further and expand it to other things that can potentially remove plastic, such as seagrasses and saltmarshes

Environmenstrual by Women’s Environmental Network and City to Sea

Aim: Support the campaign to offer more sustainable menstrual products and provide training to deliver workshops on both sustainable period products and period education

Reason: About 4.3bn disposable menstrual products are used in the UK every year, the majority of which contain plastic

Progress: Trained 47 ambassadors to deliver sustainability workshops that have reached more than 2,000 people; trained 724 teachers and nurses to deliver period education workshops to more than 104,000 students; more funding received to continue the programme

Message in a Bottle by Youth Hostels Association

Aim: Install 65 water fountains at YHA’s busiest locations and remove single-use bottles from packed lunches and from sale at all their sites

Reason: YHA runs 150 hostels in England and has historically given out or sold 500,000 single-use bottles annually

Progress: All but nine of the water fountains have been installed, with the last few awaiting planning consent; another 15 to be installed using project underspend; generated annual savings of about £100,000 from no longer using single-use water bottles

Marija Rompani, partner and director, ethics & sustainability, at Waitrose, said: “It is essential we continue to eliminate single-use plastics in our business but also support progress made by other organisations in the wider world.

“All these inspirational projects have proven their ability to create real impact in tackling environmental issues and encouraging behaviour change. Action on a larger scale is now needed to make a significant difference in our collective fight against plastic pollution.”

Funding for the challenge originated from Waitrose’s sale of 5p carrier bags, which it no longer sells. The supermarket aims to cut single use plastic by 50% by 2025.

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