Fungi are such an important part of our ecosystem; it is hard to imagine what the world would be like without the Fifth Kingdom. A world devoid of fungi would be disastrous with matter and material not decomposing and thus accumulating on the surface of the earth. Without fungi there would be no yeast, fundamental to the production of bread and alcohol, and no secondary metabolites produced as a result of their activities including plant growth hormones, steroids and industrial enzymes. Fungi play a vital part in human lives quietly cleaning up our planet of toxic waste, supplying important nutrients to plants and trees and providing significant resources for the food and pharmaceutical industries.
As if that wasn’t enough, the mycelium from which mushrooms emerge may soon replace Styrofoam™ and become the new material for many of our packaging needs. This form of packaging is plant-based, compostable and decomposes within 6-9 months as opposed to Styrofoam™, which is a petroleum-based product made of Styrene (a known health hazard) that makes up 30% of the world’s landfill. Although we have the ability to recycle Styrofoam™, it is actually only “down cycled” into a lower grade, non-biodegradable product.
Ecovative Design, a company based in Green Island, New York is the world leader of packaging made from mycelium. Their innovative processes and technology have grabbed the attention of several prominent and environmentally conscious companies including Dell computers, Crate and Barrel, Puma and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who use mushroom® packaging for their electronics, furniture, SUP boards and DART-ETD systems respectively.
The company combines mycelium (the hair-like ‘roots’ from which mushrooms fruit) with agricultural waste, such as seed hulls and plant husks, and “grow” the mixture into predetermined shapes over a few days. The forms are then heated to prevent further mycelium growth and spore production eliminating the possibility of allergens. The shapes are currently custom made to protect wine bottles, electronics, furniture and paddle boards during transport though Ecovative Design is testing new applications such as construction boards and insulation as well as surfboard blanks and automotive parts.
No matter what the mycelium-based product applications become, what is important is that it is able to replace our need for Styrofoam™ and other plastic-based products. We can thus collectively improve the impact we have on the environment by converting the packaging into mulch, by reducing our use of petroleum-based goods, and by decreasing the number of non-biodegradable products that go into our landfills.
Sources: Ecovative Design, ecovativedesign.com, earthresource.org – Polystyrene foam report, PRI Living on earth, loe.org, March 2012.