In 2018, Elizabeth Demaray posed a curious question to students in her Biodesign Challenge course: “How do you envision consumer waste as a resource?”
After much deliberation, the Rutgers University–Camden artist and her students came up with the design for a “plastomach” – a stomach where plastic debris is fed and digested by white rot fungi.
This open design is now on display as part of Demaray’s installation, “Home Is Where the Plastic-Eating Stomach Is,” through Oct. 30 in the Kitchen Gallery at Swale House, on Governors Island in New York City.
Demaray, an associate professor of art at Rutgers–Camden, notes that the project is a prime example of open design, wherein people come together to apply their skills and time for the common good.
“This open design suggests that we may be able to re-envision our consumer waste cycle by expanding the habitat of white rot fungi into our domestic living spaces,” says Demaray, whose work focuses on the interface between the built and natural environments.
According to Demaray, the plastomach is inspired by research conducted in the lab of Rutgers–Camden biologist John Dighton, which focuses on the capacity of white rot fungi to consume plastic debris.
“These white rot fungi, which include reishi, turkey tail, and oyster mushrooms, are types of fungi that we eat,” explains Demaray. “This Rutgers–Camden research shows that specific kinds of white rot fungi can consume specific kinds of consumer plastics. However, this is a slow process, and you need to cut the plastic up into very small pieces in order to increase its surface area.”
She adds that, while her students didn’t win the 2018 Biodesign Challenge, which is held nationally among higher-education institutions, they did create a great proof-of-concept design that potentially could be utilized in a domestic environment and raises people’s awareness of their plastic footprint.
As she explains, the system includes people learning to identify the types of plastic debris generated in the home, as well as the types of fungi best suited for that particular waste stream. People then select one or multiple suitable “stomach” containers, create an environment free of environmental disturbances for white rot fungi – such as other competing fungi or bacteria – and obtain the type of fungi best suited to their consumer habits. Lastly, they carefully clean and prepare their plastic debris as a feedstock source, feed their plastomach, and monitor the system’s health.
“The plastomach suggests that if you are willing to use only a tiny amount of plastic, and you are willing to cut it up into tiny pieces for your domestic fungi system, we, as a species, may be able to eliminate our plastic footprint,” she says.
Guests of the Swale House installation are encouraged to contribute their plastic debris and participate in interactive performances that will teach them how to identify, clean, and prepare various types of consumer plastics for the plastomach.
Demaray ultimately hopes participants will understand that every organism has evolved to fit a unique ecological niche.
“The nonhuman organisms around us have the capacity to perform amazing, often unrealized, functions. Our challenge in the Anthropocene is figuring out how to support the ecosystems and lifeforms that support us,” she says, referring the current geological age of the Earth.
For more information on Demaray’s work, including the installation, visit elizabethdemaray.org.