Plastic is everywhere. It's easy to see why – it's light, strong, flexible, and cheap. The number of products it comprises is astronomical, and so is its impact on the environment. Plastics are not biodegradable, sticking around for hundreds of years (or longer) in landfills, rivers, lakes, and oceans. For perspective, the World Economic Forum predicts that the plastics in the ocean will outweigh all the fish by 2050. At that time, plastics may drive 20% of oil demand and represent 15% of the carbon budget. It will be one of the most significant contributors to the climate crisis.
While many have pointed out that some fungi possess the uncanny ability to "digest" plastics and, therefore, could help "biodegrade" them faster, others suggest they could have a different role – as a replacement. This article will explore how the unique properties of fungus make it a stand-out substitute for some plastics, lowering demand and helping to solve the climate crisis.
Fungi Are More than Mushrooms
When you hear the word "fungi," you probably think of mushrooms. However, those are essentially the "fruit" of the organism. The "tree" would be mycelium – a complex mass of intertwined filaments called hyphae. The mycelium is the main growth of the lifeform, and it speeds the decomposition of plants and other organic matter by feeding on carbon to fuel its expansion. So, what does this mean for plastics?
Mycelium Use Case: Replacement for Polystyrene Packaging
Polystyrene packaging is ubiquitous, from Styrofoam to plastic yogurt containers. However, the complex hydrocarbons that make up plastic require fossil fuels and energy to produce – hardly the height of sustainability. But some companies have learned how to manufacture materials from mycelium that have similar properties to foamed polystyrene - and they can "grow" it on agricultural waste!
Corn stalks and other discarded by-products of the agricultural sector are carbon-rich. If left to decompose on their own, they emit carbon into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. However, these same waste materials make excellent substrates for fungi. When mycelium feeds on carbon and other nutrients, it decomposes its food source.
However, the mycelium grows, sending out more filaments that entangle and bind together the remaining components of the substrate. Essentially, the mycelium acts as a type of natural glue that forms a composite with its agricultural waste. By adding waste and mycelium into a mold, companies like Ecovative can "grow" packaging in three to five days which has very similar properties to traditional polystyrene foam.
Mycelium Packaging Has Several Advantages
In addition to lower fossil resources and energy consumption, mycelium composites have several other advantages over most plastics. For instance, they are biodegradable. Moreover, the agricultural garbage that makes up the substrate is plentiful, which offers an excellent opportunity to "upcycle" on a massive scale.
The final product is strong, with high tensile strength. In addition, it can be molded into any shape. Furthermore, there is no waste from the manufacturing process. Once the fungus has filled its mold, manufacturers cook the composite to render the mycelium inert – no mushrooms will appear on your packaging! Finally, the low cost and lack of health risks make mycelium-based packaging a tempting alternative to polystyrene.
Fungi-Based Products Face Some Challenges
Since scientists still do not understand everything about how mycelium functions, fungus-based materials face some challenges. Most importantly, it takes longer to manufacture a mycelium composite object than its plastic equivalent – you can pay with money or pay with time. Moreover, there is less variability in the range of products for which mycelium is suitable. For example, it can be fire resistant but is not ideal for structural insulation.
Continued Research Will Increase the Qualities of Mycelium Products
Nevertheless, mycelium has plenty of opportunity for growth. The composite it produces takes on many of the chemical properties of the substrate. Therefore, scientists are experimenting with different strands of fungus that favor nutrients that yield practical qualities like better insulation, water, and fire resistance. The process is challenging since there are likely several million species of fungi. However, a robust "grow-it-yourself" community has sprouted up around the idea of fungi as the plastic of the future.
Mycelium-Based Packaging Is Already Here; Other Uses Are Coming Soon
Fungi are some of the oldest and most complex lifeforms on Earth, and our understanding of how they function is woefully incomplete. However, their roles as decomposers and "natural glue" are well-documented, and fungi already play a role in reducing the demand for plastics. At the cutting edge, researchers and designers are already branching out, exploring what other materials are suitable for a mycelium makeover.
Although the market for plastics is very well established, and people may have an unconscious aversion to the word "fungus," there is plenty of practical evidence to suggest that fungi can play an essential role in helping to solve the climate crisis.
Clean a Beach – Styrofoam and single-use plastics are choking beaches to death worldwide. If you live near a coast, consider joining a local volunteer beach clean-up crew.
Shop Sustainably – Many food and consumer goods companies are already transitioning to sustainable packaging. Although their new materials might not be as great as mycelium, they are better than more plastic!
Plastic-Free Personal Care – Cosmetics and other hygiene products are a constant source of microplastics, either from the packaging, containers, or the products themselves. Do your best to find products that are free of them.