Can Biology Clean Up Sewage and Oil Spills?

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

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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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THE BIG PICTURE

You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

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