A bunch of mushrooms next to a piece of mushroom packaging

Close your eyes and imagine a world where we could grow plastic rather than manufacture it. A world where plastic is made from agricultural waste rather than crude oil. And a world where plastic could be composted rather than disposed of.

Sounds incredible… bordering on delusional, right?

Well, wrong (at least about the delusional part).

Mushroom packaging is a 100% biodegradable and renewable material, showing enormous potential to replace plastic packaging products like Styrofoam. It’s cultivated using mushroom mycelium - the underground, root-like body of a fungus.

And mushroom packaging is so durable, versatile, sustainable and non-toxic, you’ll be left wondering why this is the first time you’re hearing about it.

The (big) plastic problem

Plastic. It’s convenient, cheap, durable water-resistant and heat resistant.

 A pile of plastic garbage against a blue sky

Today, typical plastic is made from raw materials like gas, oil or plants. They’re then refined, treated and turned into a product called polymers – which is a broad term meaning “a substance with large molecules.” There are so many products we use today that are made using polymers, including nylon, teflon and polystyrene. 

But it’s also a big stinkin’ problem.

Single-use plastics account for 40% of plastic produced each year, and when we combine this with incredibly low recycling rates (because it’s cheaper to make it new) – then we have one of the biggest environmental threats in the history of the world.

A pile of blue polymers, with a persons hand holding some of the polymers

But it’s not just a pollution problem. Plastics are made from toxic chemicals that can impact human health and the atmosphere.

But that’s enough doom and gloom. This is an article about hope.

Mushroom mycelium

Mushroom mycelium is the vegetative part of the fungus. And if we were to liken mushrooms to plants, mycelium would be the underground root system, and a mushroom would be the flower.

Mycelium plays a major role in the soil beneath our feet, transporting nutrients, breaking down molecules and contributing to the carbon cycle.

And turns out, mycelium is also a durable and sustainable alternative to plastic.

 Mushroom mycelium growing through the soil

But okay, how do we turn this beneficial mycelium into useful packaging?

It’s a great question. 

To grow mycelium in a workshop rather than in nature, we need a food source (as mycelium typically feeds off nutrients found in the soil).  The common food source used is agricultural waste (like hemp hurds), a product that would’ve previously gone to landfill, anyway.

Biotechnologist's then combine this agricultural waste with mycelium into a mould, allowing it to grow into the desired shape.

 Mycelium moulded blocks

Within a week, the mycelium grows to fill the mould. Incredible, right?

And last but not least, the mycelium product is heated and dried, which ultimately kills the fungus. This prevents your plastic products from sporin’ everywhere and sprouting new ‘shrooms.

A rather necessary step, don’t you think?

So, is mushroom packaging viable?

Another great question. Because all too often, we stumble upon eco-friendly alternatives that are great in theory – but they struggle to compete with plastic and other chemical-based products because they’re time and money intensive.

Not a great combination when you’re trying to take on the plastic giants.

But incredibly, mushroom packaging ticks all the boxes. It’s…

  • Compostable (throw it in your veggie patch once you’re done, we dare you)
  • Puts agricultural waste to good use (which would otherwise go to landfill)
  • It uses 12% of the energy compared to plastic in the production process
  • It uses 90% less CO2 than plastic in the production process
  • It’s inexpensive (it literally grows itself, people)
  • It’s resilient, strong and a great insulator

Mushrooms next to mushroom mycelium packaging

Oh, can you feel that?

(it’s excitement in the air).

Brands making waves

So, it’s all well and good in theory. But who’s putting this technology into motion?

Ecovative are the pioneers in this space, a US-based company on a mission to grow everyday materials. Ecovative recognised that plastic and animal agriculture are two of the biggest environmental challenges we face today, and they’re out to change that with the humble mushroom.

They’ve even caught the attention (and partnered with) big brands like Ikea and Dell, creating tailored packaging for a diverse range of products.  

And they’re not just creating mushroom packaging – they’re creating plant-based meat and leather-like textiles, too. Clothing companies that have jumped on board the craze include Adidas and Lululemon.

There’s also the Magical Mushroom Company in the UK, Grown Bio in the Netherlands and BioFab in New Zealand.

We’re yet to hear of any Australian-based mushroom packaging companies, but with technology as promising as this, surely it’s only a matter of time.

 Mushroom mycelium shaped into round, egg-carton-like packaging

Article written by Shane and Ash, the mushroom farmers behind Natura Mushrooms. We’re dedicated to demystifying mushrooms and educating individuals about their environmental and health benefits. We offer a range of medicinal mushrooms with incredible properties to boost health, wellbeing and vitality. Discover our range today.

  

Resources:

https://www.sciencehistory.org/the-history-and-future-of-plastics

https://thisisplastics.com/plastics-101/how-are-plastics-made/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cApVVuuqLFY

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/plastic-pollution

https://www.plasticpollutioncoalition.org/blog/2019/2/20/report-plastic-threatens-human-health-at-a-global-scale