Although plastic is a very convenient material (flexible, strong, light, stable, etc.) that is used in a range of different products, it is damaging to our environment. Being non bio-degradable or rather it decomposes at an incredibly slow rate (due to the composition of its very large molecules), plastic poses a threat to the well being of animals, people and the environment. It is predicted that by 2050 the ocean will contain more plastic than fish in terms of weight, the report was published by the World Economic Forum, found here. While recycling has been mentioned as a solution to plastic waste, it has proven difficult to manage and there are still many problems associated with manufacturing, consumption and emissions (Side note: Greenbatch has a great solution to plastic waste management in Western Australia). As our toxic reliance on plastics and their abilities is too great, people have been considering interesting alternatives that can perform the functions of plastic products without the harmful effects on our planet. One such alternative material is based on mushrooms!
In particular, a fungus is being used in manufacturing by a company to replace plastic packaging; which makes up to 40% off all our plastic production. Ecovative design products with the use of Mycelium which they refer to as “nature’s glue”. Mycelium is the key part of the fungus that grows by extending long strands that can attach itself to structures. The mushroom packaging produced by Ecovative uses agricultural waste as the packaging mould for the fungus to attach to and grow from, the fibres of the fungus then bind together forming a solid and strong product. The manufacturing process can last from a few days or weeks depending on the product being created, the process for the mushroom packaging follows something like this:
- Agricultural waste such as corn stalks are steam pasteurised and chopped up
- Trace nutrients and water is added
- Mycelium in the form of pellets is mixed in, and the complete mixture is put into a packaging mould
- The mould is sealed and placed on a rack away from light
- Between three-five days later the fungus has grown into the mould shape
- The product is cooked to stop the growth of the mycelium
The result is a material that has the same properties of polystyrene packaging in form, function and cost, with the added benefit of being able to decompose in your very own garden after its function has been fulfilled. Since the manufacturing process for the mushroom packaging is primarily done by the growth of the fungus that requires no hydrocarbons and very little resources, the energy consumed to produce products is less than that of plastic manufacturing. The mycelium growth process can grow from various waste materials (such as corn/rice husks, cotton wastes) that can be locally sourced with minimal transport costs. All these above factors make mycelium based products cheaper to produce than plastic. The alternative, polystyrene is manufactured from styrene (a by-product of crude oil), which uses natural gas to produce steam for the process and electricity to run the equipment and moulding machines. Mushrooms can be easily grown and extracted from nature or in a laboratory, compared to polystyrene that depends on the extraction of fossil fuels.
Styrene, the fundamental component of polystyrene is considered a threat to the well-being of workers in manufacturing plants where exposure to styrene is prominent. The U.S. National Toxicology Program (NTP) recommend companies to employ good occupational health behaviours when dealing with styrene such as wearing protective clothing, respirators, gloves and that work places should be well ventilated. While different sources state opposing views on whether styrene is carcinogenic, there is no need to worry or concern yourselves about the health risks to manufacturing the environmentally friendly mycelium. Mycelium consists of threadlike cells called hyphae, although hyphae grow from spores, strands of it can be obtained from active mycelium. These strands can then be grown in a similar fashion to plant cuttings, in a different location under the right conditions. This method prevents spores from needing to be used in the manufacturing process and hence the products do not contain any spores.
Fungus can be used to grow more than just plastic packaging and insulation, as Dutch designer Eric Klarenbeek is proving through the use of recycling local landfill waste, a 3D printer and mycelium. Klarenbeek is experimenting in the variation of properties that can result in using mycelium growth, such as increasing the hardness of this material for future use in replacing more types of plastics. The below video by Vice explores fungus and why it has the potential to replace plastic:
The SWOT Analysis below conveys the general competitive advantage that Mushroom based materials has over plastic.
- Easily grown from agricultural waste products which are plentiful
- Strong, lightweight, mouldable
- Produced using less energy
- No waste or pollution from the process itself
- No health risks
- Takes longer to produce than most plastics
- Less variability and range of products can be produced
- Not as fire resistant/good as Styrofoam
- Replace plastic products as a socially and environmentally safe alternative
- Research is ongoing to improve and create more products
- Community development through GIY initiatives
- Compete against already strongly established plastic dependence (suppliers, manufactures, buyers)
- Opposition to fungus grown product, misinformed views
The real decision relies on the willingness of companies who use plastic packaging and consumers of these products to take the initiative to support mycelium technology and alternatives to plastics. As companies such as Dell and Puma lead by example in using these products or consumers become more well informed, mycelium is being advocated and improved by engineers, scientists, designers and artists alike. There are even Grow It Yourself (GIY) concepts going around encouraging people to grow their own projects and products using safe mushroom materials and processes, encouraging community involvement within the use of mycelium!
While mycelium grown products will not be replacing our dependence on plastics in the next few years, it is a step in the right direction. Showing us that the incorporation of ecological engineering principles into projects is possible. Ensuring that people understand the benefits to people, the environment and the economy that a fungus alternative for plastics can bring will ensure the success of ecological materials engineering for the future, leading to even more innovative alternatives for products. Hopefully one day we will be able to completely replace plastics in favour of ecological alternatives!