Can Biology Clean Up Sewage and Oil Spills?

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

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.

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.


Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend