September 24, 2015

Mushrooms

Mushrooms in the woods. Credit: Hans Partes / Flickr Creative Commons

Some of the stuff we waste passes through our lives so quickly, we barely even notice.

How much attention do you pay to the bag holding your grapes? Or the Styrofoam cradling your new tablet? Probably not much — it’s not the thing you ordered, it just came along for the ride. At worst, it’s an annoyance to figure out how to throw it away.

Turns out, more than 30 million tons of plastic goes along for the ride every year in this country, and that's rough on Mother Earth. The plastic packaging - from styrofoam to bubble wrap (yes, it turns out that though it’s super fun to pop… bubble wrap is terrible for the environment) - often ends up in landfills, where it can take thousands of years to break down.

That’s where mushrooms come in. Eben Bayer, co-founder of Ecovative, was a student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute when he started to consider a solution to the packaging dilemma. He and his team had been developing a replacement for plastic foams in general, “based around this insight that you could actually use mycelium, which is the root structure of a mushroom, as kind of a living glue.” 

“[We] had a piece of styrofoam packaging sitting on our table at work, [and] we realized here’s an example of a highly fragmented market, with molded shapes. We could actually make this in our lab today and go bring it out to a customer, and see if they’d be interested in using it.”

His discovery means that the cool new set of Doctor Who teacups that you ordered off Amazon just might come wrapped in mushrooms some day soon. Dell already uses the biodegradable and non-petroleum based material to ships servers.

And if you’re wondering whether you might then use the packaging as a topping on a homemade pizza, you’re unfortunately out of luck. Bayer explains the type of mushroom they use is “a woody hard mushroom, more like a tree in terms of its material composition then the common button mushroom you might have in your fridge. These materials - in comparison to the mushroom you might imagine - are actually quite durable.”

Bayer sees a big future for this biomaterial, from packaging, to insulation, to acting as glue in walls, floors, and furniture. It’s all born out of a need to, where feasible, substitute synthetics with natural, more environmentally-friendly materials. After all, it might be hard to say goodbye to bubble wrap, but at least mushrooms won’t last for thousands of years in a landfill.

Funding for Innovation Hub's environmental and sustainability reporting is provided by The Kendeda Fund: furthering the values that contribute to a healthy planet.

Green, packaging, Eben Bayer, mushrooms

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