In the future, we might not blow, mould or cast most of our materials, but grow them. That is, if we embrace mycelium, the ultimate biobased material: fully green, growing on any substrate (particularly on waste) and fully biodegradable. We can shape it in any form: let it grow in a cavity filled with neutral materials like straw or chaff and within one or two days you will end up with your packaging material, statue or whatever you had in mind. Just immobilise your object by heating it, and you will have the greenest of all materials possible. From the factory or from a grow-it-yourself kit.
Mycelium is the vegetative part of a fungus, consisting of a mass of branching, thread-like ‘hyphae’, mostly beneath the surface. Mycelium was adapted for industrial use by Ecovative Design, a small company based in Green Island (what’s in a name), NY, USA that grows products called Mushroom® Materials. As the company puts it, ‘Ecovative is the world’s leader in applying mycelium technology in the manufacturing of structural materials. We have team expertise in a broad range of agricultural materials sourced across the country and around the globe that can be used as feedstocks for biomaterials. Our solutions are bioadaptive, drawing from Earth’s full toolkit of renewable resources.’
Ecovative Design was founded by two students, after their graduation in 2007. With their revolutionary product, they won many prizes in the short history of their company, primarily because of their sustainability. Packaging materials are about their most important products at present. Among the products shipped in mushroom materials are wine and computers. These packaging materials are a substitute for polystyrene foam (EPS) – the company claims that it has replaced tens of thousands of plastic foam packaging parts with mushroom packaging – and they are perfectly biodegradable: after use, they can be shredded and added to the home compost pile. The company notes that ‘the decay rate of most plastics is essentially unknown, because they have only been around for 70 to 80 years. During that time, no decomposition has been measured, because no organisms have evolved to effectively break plastic bonds. Typically cited rates for plastics like EPS to completely decompose are in the hundreds of thousands of years, but no one really knows.’ Even biodegradable PLA bottles do not decay in the home compost pile, says Ecovative. Yes, they do in industrial compost facilities, at temperatures of 60oC. But mushroom materials will decay even in your own garden.
Mycelium boards and insulation materials
Mycelium is also very good insulator, so any place that needs insulation (homes, motor cars etc.) could make use of mushroom materials in the future. Also, mycelium is perfect for binding together plant materials to form ‘Myco Board’. In this way, we do not have to make use of formaldehyde, a carcinogen, to bind the particle board in our furniture. Mycelium technology, Ecovative says, produces structural biocomposites that perform well, without the use of harsh chemicals. And the company recently launched a Grow It Yourself kit that allows designers, innovators, students, or really anyone to purchase their material to grow into whatever shape or product they want to.
So, if the world would really be going to appreciate sustainability, it would just have to turn to mushroom materials. From the company that is ‘committed to working with industry and consumers to rid the world of toxic, unsustainable materials,’ as Ecovative’s website puts it.