Can Mushrooms Replace Plastic?

Plastic is everywhere – our homes, our pantries, our cars, our workplaces, even our face wash. Unfortunately, it also makes up 80 percent of ocean debris and 25 percent of the trash in our landfills.

The average American throws away approximately 185 pounds of plastic per year, and because plastic isn’t biodegradable it sits around for hundreds or even thousands of years, an eyesore and a deadly threat to marine life, birds, and land mammals who ingest and ensnare themselves in the waste.

The plastic waste problem has gotten so big that New York mayor Michael Bloomberg plans to ban Styrofoam food packaging in his city, and California passed a bill earlier this month specifically aimed at addressing the plastic debris washing up on California beaches – the North Pacific gyre off the coast of California is home to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the largest ocean garbage site in the world.

While government officials are busy trying to clean up the mess we’ve created, some like Gavin McIntyre and Eben Bayer of Ecovative LLC are tackling the problem from the other end, working to find a better and more sustainable alternative to plastic.

The Green Island, New York based company is growing a new kind of biodegradable material—which looks and acts much like Styrofoam, but without the harmful effects—using tissue from mushrooms.

Styrofoam, according to Bayer, is one of the biggest offenders in the plastics family. Patented by Dow Chemical in 1944 and originally used for building insulation, it now finds its way into myriad products, from take-out containers, coffee cups and packaging to surfboards and tabletops.

Twenty-billion dollars worth of Styrofoam is used every year and most of it is thrown away. But it’s not just an issue of pollution. Plastics are a huge waste of energy too. Eight percent of the world’s oil is used for plastic production, and one cubic foot of Styrofoam has the energy content of a liter and a half of petrol.

Ecovative’s mushroom plastic is both energy-efficient and 100 percent biodegradable, and it takes about four days to manufacture or “grow”.

Think do-it-yourself mushroom grow kit on an industrial scale. Ecovative takes locally sourced agricultural leftovers—like corn husks or cotton waste—sterilizes the material, adds water and some nutrients, and then injects mushroom mycelium into the mixture. The mixture is then placed into molds shaped like the desired product or packaging and left in the dark for four days to incubate. The mycelium grows in the substrate, expanding and filling the molds until it resembles Styrofoam in every way. The mushroom foam is then heat-treated to stop the mycelium growth.

The manufacturing process requires little energy, and because it uses locally sourced raw materials—say rice husks in China or Buckweed husks in North America—it’s a process that can be easily implemented anywhere in the world.

Bayer’s aha moment came as he worked on his father’s maple sugar farm years ago, tapping trees and piling up the woodchips to put into the burner. He noticed that after a few days the damp woodchips would begin to grow mycelium which bonded the woodchips together like glue.

This happens because the tiny thread-like branches of mycelium act like self-assembling material, bonding to waste and transforming it into polymers that can be morphed into practically any shape—similar to the way polymers act in polystyrene.

The ideal mushroom for making plastic-like material? The aptly named Polypore. A strong and hardy fungi found in wooded areas.

Ecovative is still in its fledgling stages, and its biggest hit so far has been its Mushroom Packaging which is used to replace traditional plastic wrap. Ecovative recently licensed out its Mushroom Packaging to Sealed Air, a multi-billion-dollar packaging company best known for its Bubble Wrap.

Dell also uses Ecovative’s Mushroom Packaging for its computers, sourcing waste cotton from near its Austin, Texas manufacturing plant to grow the mycelium. Dell already ships half its laptops in bamboo packaging.

Ecovative can look forward to more customers as businesses begin to realize the strong correlation between brand and environmental sustainability. Financial pressures, market demand, and social responsibility all have top manufacturers looking for ways to improve their environmental performance.

The auto industry is a good example of a fast-growing market for eco-friendly materials. In 2000, the European Union passed the End of Life Vehicles (ELV) Directive to promote recycling and environmentally responsible vehicle design. The law encourages the elimination of petroleum derived plastic foam products from vehicles – and other countries are following suit.

Ecovative is looking at ways to replace vehicle parts—like dashboards and seats—usually made from plastics with its mushroom material. Most recently, it furnished Rensselaer’s 2013 Formula Hybrid racecar with side impact bolsters to protect the car’s driver.

Other projects on the horizon for McIntyre and Bayer include working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on an EcoCradle buoy system that will help protect coastal communities from tsunamis. Ecovative’s mushroom material will cover the buoys to protect them as they are dropped off the deck of a ship into the ocean. The mushroom material will break down over a period of five months, unlike traditional plastics that would only contribute to ocean gyres.

Got an idea for a product? McIntyre and Bayer are actively looking for partners, and you can submit a proposal directly to their website.

Photo: Jason Hollinger on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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