Isn’t it daft to use plastics that last for centuries to make short-life packaging? Now there’s an alternative – using fungi to bind farm and forestry waste into strong, non-toxic, complex forms. When the job is done, the material can be safely burnt or composted – and it even works for buildings …
An unusual tower built with 10,000 bricks made of mushrooms and agricultural waste was recently demolished and is now being composted. This marks the end of a so-called cradle-to-cradle sustainable design project that has adorned the courtyard of MoMa PS1, a US contemporary art institute, in New York this summer.
Building materials made of mushroom mycelium, the fungus’ underground root network, and waste products such as corn, soy and sawdust may sound like something you would find in science fiction, but the end product is far less exotic. In fact, looking at the bricks, or other uses for this material, such as insulation and packaging materials, you would never guess they had been ‘grown’ in a lab by an extraordinary indoor farming technique.
One of the companies that has started to commercialise the material is Silicon Valley startup MycoWorks, run by artist Phil Ross, also one of the pioneers of the technique: “I don’t think it’s existed before on the planet. It’s so anomalous and strange. It’s very strange to be an adventurer into this edge of material science.”
Grown from plant-based byproducts
Ross calls the technique “mycotecture”, while New York company Ecovative, another pioneer and supplier of material for the tower, calls it “hypha”. The two methods vary slightly, but follow the same principle, based on growing the plastic or wood-like material from organic waste and fungi.
Waste products such as sawdust or corn stalks are placed in a mould, and then mushroom tissue is added which feeds on the organic material, digests it and realigns it into its own organic structure. In other words, it grows into its shape. Depending on what you’re producing, the final stages vary, sometimes involving heat to stop the growth.
A wide range of applications have already been developed and include polystyrene-like packaging material, insulation and panels similar to engineered wood or chipboard, which Ross says could be used to make flat pack furniture.
A natural alternative to traditional engineered wood
Engineered wood typically contains polymers such as glues to bind wood chips or other organic materials together. In contrast, Ross explains, this new substance is made without artificial binders. It is the mycelium, the mushroom’s own natural fibres, that takes care of the binding. This is the cornerstone of the technique that allows the material to naturally form into a hard and durable substance.
MycoWorks has recently received backing, but is still at the startup stage, and many of their ideas are yet to be realised. Ross, who has been using the material for creating works of art and furniture for 20 years, says he imagines endless possibilities: “Your desk, the floor, the ceilings, the walls, most of the objects in the room, the insulation in the building. A lot of things, except for maybe the foundations and the roof tiles.”
Ross uses agricultural waste as a feed-start for growing the fungus, but says it is still too soon to say exactly how his methods compare to the production of other materials in terms of energy efficiency or carbon emissions. “But I can say that in general you are using material which has already been grown from food stocks and taking that out of the waste cycle. And you are doing it generally with a smaller percentage of energy than what was used to create that material in the first place.”
Mushroom materials used for packaging at Dell
New York based Ecovative has large clients such as computer giant Dell who uses their mushroom-based packaging solutions. The company have just launched a DIY scheme called Grow it Yourself, in which designers and small businesses, as well as adventurous individuals, can grow their own mushroom material.
Melissa Jacobsen, spokesperson at Ecovative, says they can’t wait to see what other designers decide to create and potentially commercialise through the programme: “Companies like Surf Organic Boards and Danielle Trofe Design are using Ecovative’s patented technology to grow sustainable surfboards, lampshades, and planters.”
Ecovative’s technology is Cradle-to-Cradle certified which means that the production process follows a closed-loop life-cycle of the material which is sourced from organic bio-products and can later be composted with nothing going to waste. This process is now being showcased to mark the end of the exhibition at MoMa PS1 where the compost from the bricks will be used for growing new corn.
Are mushrooms the new plastic?
“Welcome to The Mushroom Age” says Ecovative’s website which markets the material as an alternative to plastic. And there are many incentives for finding new materials to compete with plastic, which is petroleum-based and non-biodegradable.
Food packaging solutions are a case in point: some companies have been phasing out the use of polystyrene in food packaging for some time. Last month US National Research Council affirmed the US National Toxicology Program’s 2011 findings which showed that the organic compound styrene can “reasonably be anticipated to be a human carcinogen”. When used in food packaging, researchers are concerned that these compounds can make it into the food or drink products.
But perhaps an even bigger incentive for finding non-carbon eco-friendly alternatives to plastic is the vast quantity of it ending up in the sea and the negative impact this has on wildlife and the environment in general. While plastics and other petroleum-based packaging solutions often end up in landfills or in the sea, these mushroom-based materials are biodegradable and can be composted.
Mother nature knows best
The mushroom tower was an art installation called Hy-Fi and the 2014 winner of The Museum of Modern Art’s and MoMA PS1’s Youthful Architects Program. It was unveiled on 27th June in the museum’s courtyard and was designed by New York Architect David Benjamin.
Although this technology may seem recent to us, it’s not new to Mother Nature, says Jacobsen. “Mycelium has been acting as a natural resin, binding the forest floor together since the beginning of time.”
Old or new, the technique is attracting interest internationally. Jacobsen says they are in the midst of developing new business in both Europe and Asia and are looking at new applications such as floral foams and other building materials.
I wrote this piece for The Ecologist in September 2014.