There is a fungus among us. Mushrooms, or more technically, the part of them called mycelium, can help wean us from plastic. Mushrooms are soft and squishy, but mycelium products are surprisingly tough and durable. Mycelium gives us mushroom packaging, mushroom leather, even mushroom meat. It will eventually give us even more.
Fungi are neither plants nor animals. They do not make their own food from photosynthesis as plants do. Instead, like animals, they must absorb nutrients from other organic substances.
But unlike animals, fungi do not digest food inside their bodies. They excrete enzymes into whatever they eat and digest it before ingesting it. They must expand their surface area in the process. In this way, they play a major role in biodegrading dead matter.
Mycelium is the undifferentiated filament structure of a fungus. Set it loose on various kinds of organic waste, it grows from a network of microscopic cells into a mushroom or something. Think of mycelium as mushrooms’ roots.
But human intervention can force it to become mycelium products instead of a mushroom. The “root” structure can grow in a mold and take the mold’s shape to make any number of products.
The technology of using nature
Living beings exhibit a kind of architecture. The ones big enough for us to see build various cells into large structures.
Human technology has lately used chemistry to make relatively small molecules into large, complicated molecules called polymers. In other words, plastic. It’s kind of a clumsy imitation of nature in a way. And it results in structures that nature would never make.
Plastic has been both a boon for mankind and the root cause of many of our environmental headaches. And none of the plastic products are as good as the natural products they imitate. Consider fake leather, particle board, or synthetic fabrics.
The pioneers who developed plastic didn’t know they were experimenting with clumsy imitations of nature. More recently, scientists have started to study how various biological organisms work. They want to discover how to use natural processes or how to imitate them more naturally.
Mycelium research, then, is learning to make large structures using natural processes. In principle, such products will be at least as good as their plastic counterparts without the environmental headaches.
Available mycelium products include Styrofoam-replacement packaging, vegan leather that isn’t plastic, meat substitutes, sound-proofing acoustic panels, and flooring. Such products from fungi as benches, composting toilets, and building components are on the horizon. Scientists have more exciting ideas as well.
In fact, some researchers are wondering why be content with mycelium bricks? Instead, build a scaffolding, fill it with cellulose-rich waste material, introduce mycelium, and grow the whole building that way. Scientists have even more exciting ideas in mind.
Ecovative Design: the origin of mycelium products
Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre founded Ecovative Design in 2007 and released their first product in 2010. Called EcoCradle, it amounts mushroom Styrofoam™ packaging. It can be formed and used in all the same ways as the foam plastic, but it’s biodegradable and compostable. That is, if you receive a product packaged in it, you can toss the foam on your compost pile. It won’t last forever in the environment like most plastics.
The company’s second product, MycoFlex, replaces polyurethane in products such as makeup removers. Or it can be made into a non-polyurethane mushroom leather.
Most recently, it has introduced Atlast, a meat substitute. Here are a couple of fascinating advantages of Atlast over meat: It takes years to grow a pig to market size. In the process, one pound of pork takes 575 gallons of water. Mycelium meat, on the other hand, grows in 10 days and uses only 1.25 gallons of water.
Making mushroom packaging is fairly straightforward. The company combines various agricultural waste products, water, and mycelium in a mold. The mycelium consumes the waste products and, in the process, grows to fit the mold. Then it is heated and dehydrated to kill the mycelium.
The other two products require growing mycelium in chambers that create soil-like conditions. It happens in an environment that prevents it from forming an actual mushroom. After harvesting, it can be made either into the leather-like product or the meat substitute. As a food, it has both the same protein content as meat but is also high in fiber.
By this time, other companies have started to make mycelium products. Mycoworks, for example, uses different processes to make mycelium leather. Grown, for another, makes mushroom packaging and various interior design products such as mycelium lamp shades, flower pots, and small furniture.
Environmental advantages of mycelium products
Instead of using harsh chemicals to make plastic, mycelium packaging, leather, etc. rely on natural processes to make a completely natural product.
Mushrooms grow wherever they can find food. Unlike plants and animals, they need little water. They don’t even need light or a lot of space. It’s easy to grow them at industrial scale. Mushroom farmers have been doing so for generations.
By forcing the mycelium to make packaging, leather, or meat instead of mushrooms, Ecovative Design, its licensees, and competitors need no fossil fuels for building blocks. Mycelium is infinitely renewable. And all the products made by it, being natural, degrade naturally.
Therefore, mycelium technology is especially suitable for packaging and other single-use products. Mycelium products are even better for such applications than bioplastics. Did I say you can toss them on your home compost pile? They will degrade as quickly as whatever else belongs there.
This fungus-based material is being used to imitate Styrofoam, leather, and even bacon / Will Storey, Claire Molloy, and Mark Abadi; Business Insider. Mar 12, 2020
Made of fungi, mycelium hits market as green substitute for leather, plastic / Emily Chung, CBC News. March 22, 2021
Mushroom packaging? why mycelium is the greenest alternative for Styrofoam / Source Green Packaging. August 9, 2021
Mushrooms: an eco-friendly alternative to Styrofoam™ / this blog, March 22, 2012
The mycelium revolution is upon us / Eben Bayer, Scientific American. July 1, 2019