Can Biology Clean Up Sewage and Oil Spills?

From mushrooms to hair mats, quirky cleanups for man-made messes.


Doing Our Dirty Work

Go With the Flow Inventor John Todd’s Eco-Machines use tanks of bacteria, fungi, plants, snails, and fish to digest sewage, releasing water clean enough to be reused for plumbing or irrigation. The man-made ecosystems can filter up to 50 million gallons a day and have treated wastewater from a Hawaiian resort and a chocolate factory.

Magic Mushrooms Fungi are marvelous biological filters, breaking down hydrocarbons, PCBS, DDT, and dioxin. Mycological genius Paul Stamets has used oyster mushrooms to transform diesel-soaked soil into a bed of gourmet fungi after just four weeks. Bon appétit!

Diet of Worms Thomas Azwell, an environmental science PhD student at the University of California-Berkeley, uses worms to digest organic waste from California Costco stores; the chain then sells the resulting compost, called Vermigrow, as a soil amendment.

Good Hair Day Oil clings to hair—which makes your mop an excellent material for mopping up oil spills. Matter of Trust, a San Francisco nonprofit, collected trimmings from 16,000 salons to make hair mats that soaked up slicks everywhere from car repair shops to San Francisco Bay. And Azwell is using his worms to convert oil-laden hair mats into fertilizer.

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