Photo by Gabrielle Mustapich/Unsplash
Mushrooms are increasingly becoming the focus of many industries for their amazing structural and adaptable properties. They are being considered as alternatives for single-use plastic packaging such as styrofoam and hard plastics.
We have seen the detrimental effects of single-use plastics on our environment. One of the biggest challenges for manufacturers has been reducing packaging on goods and switching to biodegradable alternatives.
The problem with plastic
We’ve all heard about the terrible state of landfills around the world and how the amount of waste we produce is creating environmental disasters. Many of us believe that recycling plastic is a way to help in the solution. However, some of us do not have recycling facilities nearby. It is also necessary to question how much of the plastic we send to recycling facilities can actually be recycled?
In 2018, across the United States, a total of 146 million tons of waste were sent to landfill. Of this amount, 18.49% was plastic, the second largest percentage after food waste. In the same year, 69 million tons of waste were sent to recycling facilities, of which only 4.38% was plastic. These figures suggest that the majority of waste is going straight to landfill and much of that is plastic.
In nature, plastics do not entirely decompose but are broken into tiny pieces, known as microplastics, by the physical effects of nature and ultraviolet rays from the sun. These tiny microplastic pieces then go on to pollute our waterways, land and food sources. They make their way into everything from salt, fruits, vegetables, cereal crops and seafood.
Exciting developments have emerged recently in the world of environment-friendly and sustainable products. One of them is the use of biodegradable mushroom plastics to replace commonplace packaging items. It is not the mushroom itself, but its underground network of roots, called mycelia, that are drawing such interest.
Billions of strands of mycelia make up the main body of the fungus that grow beneath the earth and across surfaces such as trees. The mycelia have the fairly unique ability to form strong natural polymers and bond together the loose material or substrates they grow on.
In the past decade, people have begun to seriously research the possibilities of what mycelia are capable of. They have been used in the replication of different materials such as hard and soft plastics, foams and textiles.
A type of engineerable “leather” made from mycelium mats is under development that could drastically reduce the resources and production time of the product when compared to its animal equivalent. This research by Bolt Threads, in partnership with major brands such as Adidas, Stella McCartney, Kering and Lululemon, means we can expect mycelium leather products to be available to buy as early as 2021.
Packaging styrofoam is a major contributor to global pollution. Not only does it require the use of harmful chemicals in its production, it also breaks down slowly and, as it does so, leeches these chemicals back into the environment.
Because styrofoam is widely used to protect products during transit, it is necessary to be single use by design. When it has fulfilled its function, it is thrown away. It is widely unknown how long it takes styrofoam to degrade, but some experts suggest, it could take as long as 500 years.
We have long recognized the need for an environment-friendly alternative to styrofoam. For the smaller styrofoam “packing peanuts,” it is not so difficult to find a replacement. For some years now, it has been common to find totally biodegradable packing nuts made from wheat and cornstarch, and even occasionally popcorn!
For larger pieces of formed styrofoam though, it has been a little more tricky. This is where mycelia are really coming into their own. The mycelia can grow happily on most natural substrates, provided that the climate is right. This can be agricultural by-products such as hemp, corn husks or wood chips.
Simple natural ingredients and a simple process
The product is essentially made up of a substrate, which must be a biodegradable natural material such as wood chips and mycelia. The substrate and mycelia are combined, and then packed into a form to create the desired shape. They are then left for a week for the mycelia to grow throughout the substrate and bind the material together.
After this, they are dried for up to two days to inhibit further growth. The process gives a solid, light form that is strong but also biodegradable, which is ideal for packaging dry goods. These products cannot currently be used for coffee cups or food items, but no doubt that will be possible soon.
One producer, Paradise Packaging, states that when the product is no longer needed, it can be disposed of with household waste or in compost in as few as 30 days. This is pretty amazing when compared with traditional plastics.
Why stop at packaging
There are a few producers currently experimenting with mycelia solutions as a substitute for plastic packaging, but a company has used the technology to grow a house.
Ecovative Design is a New York based company that specializes in mycelium technology, creating sustainable alternatives to traditional plastics, which also include building materials.
The company has experimented by placing mycelia insulation in the walls of the house. These grow into the organic surface of the wood and form a solid structural wall without the need for reinforcement. As the wall grows in a single solid piece, it requires less materials to build, has high insulation properties and, as a bonus, is fire resistant.
There are currently many interesting and innovative ideas surrounding mycelia and mushroom technology aside from being useful as a building and construction material. It is now thought that certain varieties of mushroom may be able to break down plastics, as well as clean up toxic spills.
We are really just beginning to understand the fascinating world of mycelia and what they are capable of. It is exciting to imagine all the new potential uses, in fact, maybe one day in the not too distant future, we will be inundated with earth-friendly mushroom-based products.