Contributing writer Leah Moynihan looks at ways in which mycelium can be used as a replacement for various different environmentally harmful materials in light of the ongoing climate crisis.
Imagine a future where you never have to open a package full of polystyrene again. Imagine a future where our plastics no longer contain crude oil and are instead made from agricultural waste. Imagine a future where plastic is biodegradable and does not litter our streets and beaches. Imagine nature thriving. Mushrooms could be the key to this bright future.
Mushrooms have a bad reputation for causing disease and harming ecosystems. While some types of mushrooms may cause damage, they also have properties that may help positively shape the future of our planet. They sequester carbon and aid in slowing climate change. They can degrade environmental pollutants such as oil and plastics. They can restore degraded soils (which we have increasingly seen as a result of climate change) and act as a pest control. Most importantly, mushrooms have the potential to replace unsustainable resources and can lead us towards ending single-use products. Our landfills are filled with 30% Styrofoam, and it takes 500 years for plastic to decompose. Hence, solutions are needed urgently in a world ridden with polluting materials. Fortunately, people are beginning to become more increasingly aware of the harm that plastic and other toxic materials are having on the environment. The world is changing, with an increasing amount of restrictive laws being imposed which ensure that harmful plastics are becoming less commonly used. Twenty-five countries already have various initiatives which ban single use materials and therefore, alternatives are needed.
Mycelium is the root structure of mushrooms under the soil and myselia networks can spread for many kilometres. It grows underground without the need for light and thus, it requires no external energy. It can be produced on a vast range of substrates such as agricultural waste and food leftovers. It takes up much less space than other materials using vertical farms. Most importantly, mycelium is similar to Styrofoam in water absorption, mass and chemical composition. It is an environmentally friendly alternative to the single-use materials that are currently being mass produced. Paul Stamets, a leader in fungal biology, has led pioneering research into how mycelium can be used in everyday products. With the help of mechanical engineers, ‘Ecovative’ was founded. They are a leader in the field of fungal materials. They have designed natural insulation material that can be injected between walls where the mycelium grows to become strong. This saves on resources as no internal wooden studs or metal is needed for support. They have also developed panels that carry no formaldehyde or harmful resins, which is a major issue in the construction industry. Other companies have also recognised the need for sustainable materials and the benefits that fungus offer. Mycelium has been used to restore flooring and can even be made into bricks. It can replace leather, with the material utilised by major brands such as Adidas and Stella McCartney. Companies have also created a mycelium-based toilet for refugee camps. The tank can be buried once it is full, and acts as fertiliser. Another application currently being developed is for single-use items in healthcare. In recent years, we have seen the piles of masks and gloves that are thrown away, and as a result, biodegradable replacements are necessary. However, the most crucial product for the future is alternative packaging for products.
Humans have produced plastic at a weight of 25,000 times that of the Empire State Building. By using mycelium and agricultural waste, researchers have generated a sustainable product that resembles Styrofoam and can replace plastic. Unlike its counterparts, it does not harm the environment. Mycelial foam is 100% biodegradable and naturally decomposes in landfills. Products such as bricks and stones take a long time to produce with a lot of resources invested in the process. Fungal materials can be grown in large quantities over a period of weeks to days. The mycelium starts with plant-based agricultural waste and is fully compostable. It saves on land resources and water. It is durable, fire resistant, waterproof and in sustainable supply. It is also personalised for every use. Consequently, the mycelium materials can be utilised in the food and packaging industry, which will immensely reduce waste and pollution. This is essential for the future of the environment and human health.
Mycelium based products also have many other unusual applications such as in footwear and furniture. However, it is not only mushrooms that have been used to design sustainable products. Banana plants have been grown to create fabrics. Plastic bottles have been recycled to make furniture and building materials. Fruit peels and garden waste are melted down to be injected into moulds to create a wide range of products. Even shredded paper has been utilised as new fibre materials. Every part of the resource is used up, which is essential if we plan to move towards a circular economy. Mushrooms cannot save the world on their own, hence, we need to utilise every sustainable resource in order to move away from plastics and other petroleum-based products. If these innovative natural materials were to go mainstream, further pollution of our natural environment could be prevented. Mushrooms need to be at the forefront of environmental research. They are versatile and have many properties that we can utilise to improve our way of living. They could potentially replace common materials used in packaging, skincare, clothing, and the building sector. We have the technologies and innovation to transform our future, yet individuals with power must do their part. Companies must be pressured to adopt effective sustainable alternatives. The price of these products can be reduced if they become popular and a large quantity is sold.
Consumers must be aware of ‘greenwashing’ and buy from companies that are trustworthy in their environmental activities. Governments must bring in new laws banning single use plastics and invest in companies with alternative environmentally friendly solutions. We can look forward to a healthier environment if companies and consumers decide to avail of more natural resources for their products. Imagine someday living in a house made entirely from fungal material. A plastic free future is possible, and mushrooms can be our key to achieving it.