Mushrooms: More Than Just a Pizza Topping

Few materials stir up as much righteous indignation as expanded polystyrene. This is a material that cannot be recycled and takes up a quarter of the volume of American landfills. Its a material that requires a liter and a half of oil to produce each cubic foot of plastic foam. Literal tons of expanded polystyrene end up in the oceans every year where it sits on the surface of the water while degrading into hazardous chemicals over the course of decades. You may know this material by its trade name, Styrofoam, or by its ubiquitous presence as a shipping material in the form of packing peanuts or packing bumpers. It’s truly everywhere and truly a pressing environmental threat.

On a brighter note, a viable alternative to expanded polystyrene has been created and successfully marketed by Ecovative Design since 2009. Instead of turning into toxic chemicals, Ecovative’s material can be composted or turned into mulch. Instead of feeding on limited oil supplies, their material feeds on byproducts of local agricultural production. Instead of taking years to degrade, their material breaks down in fresh or salt water within the space of five months. Besides all of the aforementioned ecological benefits, Ecovative’s product insulates, absorbs impact, and, perhaps most impressively, resists fires. Just as importantly, it’s cost-competitive with traditional plastic foams. What is this magic substance that can outcompete Styrofoam? Ecovative calls it Mushroom Material, and it is little more than that: mushrooms.

Ecovative turns mushrooms into packing material in a process that is both sustainable and elegantly hands-off. First, their factory takes in agricultural waste, e.g. corn stalks and rice husks, and grinds it up while inoculating the waste with mycelium, a fungal structure similar to plant roots. This mixture is put into molds which are then covered. Within a few days the Mushroom Material self-assembles into blocks as the mycelium grows and feeds on the agricultural-waste substrate. When ready, the blocks are heated in order to stop growth, dry, and kill allergens. Undigested substrate stays incorporated into the final product alongside the fully grown mycelium, giving Mushroom Material its distinctive irregular and biological look. From here the material can be used in the service of packaging, insulation, automotive building, or even mushroom-foam surfboards.

To exhibit the architectural potential of mushrooms, Ecovative has created what they’ve dubbed their Mushroom Tiny House. After building a simple wooden structure with hollow walls and no studs, Ecovative let their Mushroom Insulation grow into the inter-wall space. The insulation grows for a few days, filling all of the walls nooks and crannies, and then sets for about a month, leaving a wall that is not only insulated but airtight, fireproof, and structurally strong. The Tiny House was finished in June 2013 and then traveled over 150 miles from Ecovative’s headquarters in Green Island, NY to New York City where the project was honored as a finalist in the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Challenge. On the long trip the Tiny House withstood all the wear of the road and 70 mph winds, an incredible feat of toughness for a house built primarily of mushroom and completely devoid of studs.

Beyond Cradle to Cradle’s recognition of Ecovative’s amazing work, Ecovatic has received awards from the Environmental Protection Agency, the World Economic Forum, and even Sir Richard Branson. With such recognition the business can move into a new phase of business as they partner with larger companies who want to package sustainably. Their Mushroom Material potentially represents an enormous 180° turn for the packing industry. They took packaging from the ultimate pollutant to a waste-fed, soil-enriching super material. Ecovative’s success may even signal the end of the age of plastic, because if Styrofoam can be replaced so perfectly, what can’t be?

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