AUSTRALIA (KXAN) — Researchers in Australia are tackling a major, continent-wide issue: littered cigarette butts.

According to the World Wildlife Fund Australia, half of the roughly 18 billion cigarettes smoked a year end up in a landfill.

The company taking the lead, Fungi Solutions, uses fungi to divert waste from landfills and create natural alternatives to plastics.

Cigarette butts will be broken down in an Australian-based trial by a familiar fungus: the oyster mushroom. In 2021, scientists began training the oyster mushroom to essentially eat these cigarette butts.

The early success and now implementation of this trial will limit the amount of chemicals that will end up in Australia’s waterways or limit the negative impacts these butts have on the ecosystem and wildlife. Many fisheries have even captured butts in many fish and whales’ stomachs. Cigarettes also leach toxic waste that can end up in runoff and eventually into a water supply.

The goal of this new trial will be for these fungi to break down more than 1.2 million cigarette butts that would have otherwise been sent to a landfill.

  • It takes the mushrooms only a full week or so to consume the butts.
  • Cigarette butts sitting in landfills take as much as 15 years to decompose.

How the process works

A mycelium is a network of fungal threads. In a lab, these threads surround, cover and even grow through the cigarette butt and essentially eat and break down the material, in return drawing out all of the nutrients from it.

After digesting the material in the cigarette, much of the harmful chemicals and plastics are now gone. The fungi leave behind a new material that can later be used and recycled into some other purposeful product, or used for composting purposes.

In the initial stages of the research, the fungi had to be trained to eat the cigarette butts. The material of the cigarette butts were foreign to fungi and, therefore, not something the mushroom would break down on its own or in a natural environment. Scientists had to gradually, over a long span of time, familiarize it with the new material by mixing the cigarette butts with other elements that the fungi were more accustomed to. After this process, these new “trained” mushrooms could be used for future trials.

The researchers’ goal down the road, as they continue this trial, is to take the byproduct of what the fungi digest and recycle it into a bin-type tool that will be able to help carry more cigarette butts in the future — rather than using single-use garbage bags.