Revolutionizing Sustainability With Mycelium

Part II: How returning the roots in our soil may be the solution in creating products that are compostable, sustainable, and low-carbon.

The Fungus Among Us

In 1929, Alexander Fleming unintentionally discovered penicillin after noticing that the Penicillium genus fungus in his lab was unaffected by the bacteria around it. He named the active ingredient in the fungus penicillin, and he continued to study the active agent until he concluded his research in 1931. About a decade later, two researchers at Oxford University began their own examination on the effects of penicillin and its relationship to bacterial infections. This research led to a major shift in modern medicine, and previously deadly infections like pneumonia finally had a treatment and cure. Fungi was crucial in paving this new future for humankind, and in the age of sustainability research, it continues to lead us to new solutions.

Many entrepreneurs and scientists alike have turned back to nature to address the climate crisis. In an effort to find better energy sources, reduce water waste, and sustain our food supply, we have seen a boom in new technologies that utilize the natural resources around us. From carbon capture with sea kelp to organic dyes for clothing, there are all kinds of solutions to create an economy and lifestyle that is circular and sustainable. Fungi has entered this conversation, and as a result, technology has incorporated its properties to help create long-lasting alternatives. Mycelium, in particular has been used to produce substitutes in several industries in an effort to reduce the damaging effects of products that generate pollution and waste.

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Understanding Mycelium

Mycelia are the branched filaments of fungi and can be found underground or situated on surfaces like tree trunks. They can be microscopic or function as roots and grow into mushrooms, puffballs, rhizomorphs, toadstools, and truffles. When visible to the human eye, mycelia look like interwoven, thin threads. Mycelium consumes food from sources like wood or plant waste by taking in the sugar from those items. It does so by producing an enzyme that can break down the materials. Because of this characteristic, it operates much like the human digestive tract. As it grows, it builds a system of fibers that may eventually develop into a mushroom. This stage is crucial as mycelium can be manipulated to form specific structures by controlling the temperature it’s in. From here, it can be influenced to become an edible protein or even a building material. 

Growing New Solutions

Mycelium may soon become an essential building block for developing a handful of sustainable products that aren’t a burden to the environment. The ability to influence the growth and formation of mycelium gives us the opportunity to create a wide range of climate-friendly goods, including clothing, food, and packaging. As a result, mycelium has the potential to replace nonbiodegradable materials that are currently piling up in landfills all over the world.

Mycelium has the potential to replace nonbiodegradable materials that are currently piling up in landfills all over the world.

Plastic, for instance, is a major source of concern due to its nonbiodegradable characteristics. Plastic manufacturers began producing consumer goods after World War II. Since then, plastic consumption has grown exponentially and globally. As the largest producer of plastics, China produced 60 million tonnes of plastic waste in one year alone. Of that number, only 16 million tonnes were recycled. And while recycling is one avenue to extend the lifecycle of plastic, it is cheaper to produce new plastic than it is to recycle existing plastic. Furthermore, recycling still requires a significant amount of energy in its process. Mycelium offers a new way to create goods that are typically made from plastic. As mycelium grows, it can be placed into molds for all kinds of products, and those mycelium-based products degrade much faster than plastics.

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Swapping Styrofoam for Mushrooms

Styrofoam is another nonbiodegradable material that could be replaced with mycelium. An estimated 1300 tons of styrofoam get dumped in US landfills on a daily basis. Made from a petroleum-based organic compound called styrene, styrofoam can take over 500 years to decompose. During that decomposition, it also releases chemicals into the environment that eventually harms living creatures in its vicinity. Even as a product that’s in use, styrofoam is a health hazard. Whether it’s made into cups, containers, or craft supplies, contact with styrofoam always poses a risk. The Environmental Protection Agency has warned of styrene’s ability to cause damage to the nervous system by causing headaches, fatigue, and dizziness. Likewise, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer believes styrene to be a possible carcinogen. Even if styrofoam could naturally decompose in a timely manner, its chemicals pose a dangerous threat to human health. 

Made from a petroleum-based organic compound called styrene, styrofoam can take over 500 years to decompose.

As an alternative, mycelium foam is organic, strong, and still functions as an insulator, similar to styrofoam. Its production isn’t expensive either. Mycelium-based foam can be used in gloves for thermal insulation, in shoes for a cushioned material, or as filler in packages. Mycelium technology company Ecovative was the first business to use mycelium tech in 2007. Founded by Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre, the company now has over 40 patents in 31 countries. In 2019 it expanded inventory to include apparel and footwear with Forager foam. Forager foam is Ecovative’s brand named for its mycelium-based foam. Ecovative also produces goods for beauty, packaging, food, and leather. It’s also the parent company of My Forest Foods, which produces plant-based meats.

Mycelium in Sustainable Food Systems

The first product developed at My Forest Foods was the MyBacon Strips, which promises to deliver a smoky and savory flavor, all while being meatless. Its simple 6-ingredient composition is notably different from other plant-based meats that tend to contain a longer list of ingredients. Along with needing less water and land, mycelium-based meat production also emits less carbon in comparison to traditional pork bacon production. Across the world, the German-based start-up company Mushlabs also uses fermentation technology to produce plant-based protein from mycelium. The opportunity for mycelium companies to continue growth is promising. In 2020 the company received series A funding of $10 million.

As it stands, the current farm and food industries are a heavy burden on the planet. The cattle raised for meat and dairy products has unleashed an overwhelming amount of methane into the atmosphere, while industrialized agriculture creates chemical runoff and pollutes surrounding ecosystems. Air pollution from the corn industry alone has been linked to 4,300 premature deaths. Not to mention, the antibiotics fed to animals are the same drugs used to treat human diseases. As a result, antibiotic-resistant diseases like E. coli take the lives of about 700,000 people each year

While plant-based meats don’t necessarily serve as a substitute for crop products, the consumption of mycelium protein over animal protein could reduce on the demand for meats. As plant-based meat, mycelium requires less water and land space than cattle and poultry. It also creates limited waste, and the waste that is created is mostly compostable. The nutritional value in mycelium is quite similar to the nutrition in mushrooms. It’s gluten and cholesterol free as well as free from some of the most common allergens. It also contains amino acids and fiber.

As plant-based meat, mycelium requires less water and land space than cattle and poultry. It also creates limited waste, and the waste that is created is mostly compostable.
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Creating Sustainable Fashion

The pollution problems of the cattle industry aren’t exclusive to dairy and meat production; it also includes the production of leather. Every leather product on the market today contributes to the ongoing issues of air and water pollution. On the other side of the coin, a majority of vegan leather currently on the market is made from plastic. While it’s animal cruelty-free, plastic-made leather feeds into the unchecked chaos of plastic waste in both our oceans and landfills. Instead, using a naturally occurring substance for vegan leather allows the best of both worlds. Because mycelium can be manipulated during its growth, it can form a material that mimics the texture of traditional animal leather. In order for this to work, mycelium cells are fed enough nutrients to grow fibers that will thread and intertwine to form tough and durable material. This can be done by placing the cells onto a dish during its growth and shaping the byproduct into panels. It’s left to incubate for a month and afterward can be collected and colored to resemble regular leather. Another process involves letting the cells grow naturally into their own shape, and afterward, the shape is cut and colored as desired.

Because mycelium can be manipulated during its growth, it can form a material that mimics the texture of traditional animal leather.

In 2021, global shoe brand Addidas announced a new shoe made with Mylo, a mycelium leather engineered by Bolt Threads. In the announcement, Addidas recognized its part in contributing to the climate crisis and its responsibility to course-correct those behaviors. The partnership with Bolt Threads will help the company in its goal in creating a “fully circular future” where the materials used at Addidas will return back to the earth after use. Referring to itself as a material solutions company, Bolt Threads began in 2009 and is on the mission to create materials that can be found in nature. The partnership with Addidas brings consumers a shoe that will help put an end to plastic waste. Mylo material is grown from mycelium in a vertical farming facility that operates solely on renewable energy. Other brands that have partnered with Bolt Threads to incorporate Mylo material include Lululemon, Kering, and Stella McCartney. At Lululemon, the apparel brand announced a collection of yoga accessories that would be made from Mylo material. One product includes a yoga mat that’s undyed and free from synthetic materials. In February of 2022, the company announced that its Yoga Mat Bag and Barrel Duffel Bag made with Mylo were available for customers to purchase. 

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Better Building Blocks

Conventional construction materials weren’t necessarily made with the environment in mind. The concrete manufacturing process produces carbon emissions, and steel production leaches chemicals into the water. Anytime a building with these materials burns in a fire or collapses, toxins and chemicals released into the air with the potential to invade the lungs of people and animals. Wood has long since been used for shelter, yet rapid and irresponsible deforestation often threatens the surrounding ecosystems. Although there are some efforts to build with wood responsibly, there is still a need to drastically change the way in which modern-day construction harms the planet. Building livable structures with mycelium is still a fairly new concept, but many are testing out how it can perform.

In the United Kingdom, Biohm is a manufacturing company that has developed mycelium insulation panels. Their product has outperformed plastic-based based construction materials in both thermal and acoustic insulation. While its life expectancy doesn’t appear to be as long as regular building materials, products made from mycelium don’t release toxic smoke in the event of a building fire. Biohm grows their mycelium with the assistance of agricultural byproducts intended for landfills. Repurposing byproducts in this way to feed mycelium helps establish a regenerative process. The company estimates that its mycelium production is carbon-negative and entraps at least 16 tonnes of carbon per month.

Some companies have also tested constructing buildings with mycelium bricks. In 2014, a project commissioned by Princeton University was built from mycelium and crop that were placed into brick molds. The building stood at 13 meters tall made from 10,000 bricks in Queens, New York. The structure was named Hy-Fi, and during its construction, engineers tested its strength and wind resistance. However, in comparison to concrete, mycelium isn’t as strong. Concrete can endure 4,000-10,000 psi (pound per square inch), while mycelium can only hold 30 psi. On the positive side, the building had a carbon footprint close to zero. Because this concept is still in the early stages of development, a lot more research is still required to understand how to make mycelium bricks as durable and long-lasting as possible. Nonetheless, mycelium’s organic makeup and mouldable physique leave a lot of potential in the construction industry.

A Promising Future

The many possibilities mycelium has to offer different sectors demonstrates how important nature is when it comes to saving the planet. This gives consumers and investors alike many avenues to choose from when deciding how to contribute their dollars. Those who value a vegan lifestyle can purchase mycelium-based proteins and leathers, while those who advocate for better fashion practices can find comfort in mycelium apparel. There is no doubt that as technology evolves and research continues, scientists will find new methods that help support a sustainable way of living. 

Business Takeaways
  1. Mycelium can be manipulated to form specific structures by controlling the temperature it’s in.
  2. Mycelium takes a short time to produce and a short time to decompose.
  3. Proteins and leathers made from mycelium could reduce the damaging impacts on the cattle industry.
  4. Several industries can benefit from mycelium-based products, and potential investors have a wide range to choose from.