IKEA Starts Using Biodegradable Mushroom-Based Packaging for Its Products
Almost all retail products that we use today come packaged and nearly 50% of all packaging materials are made of plastic. While packaging products in lightweight and durable plastic improves a product’s shelf life and handling convenience, plastic can wreak irrevocable damage on the environment. As awareness about plastic’s drawbacks and legislative restrictions on fossil-fuel based packaging materials increases, alternative “green” packaging materials have been discovered. One such material is Ecocradle, a mushroom-based packaging material, developed by Ecovative Design in 2010 by mycelium technology. The natural and biodegradable Ecocradle can literally be grown in a controlled environment in a week’s time and takes just a week to decompose totally. It fits right into nature’s recycling system.
Mushroom-based packaging went mainstream when the furniture giant, IKEA, announced that it will replace Styrofoam packaging with EcoCradle for all its products. Ecocradle decomposes within weeks as against Styrofoam packaging that can take centuries to decompose. Moreover, it’s cost-effective to produce and almost as durable as plastic. Ecocradle has also proved to be as insulating and flame-resistant as polystyrene. IKEA’s ingenious initiative is bound to be a motivating factor for other commercial outfits that aim to give back to the society and environment where they exist. IKEA’s Head of Sustainability, Joanna Yarrow, said this was the retailer’s small yet significant step towards reducing waste and conserving ecological balance. Dell, Coca Cola, P&G, and many other brands have switched to eco-friendly alternative packaging.
Hazards of Styrofoam Packaging
Although it’s common knowledge that Styrofoam packaging can be harmful to the environment, it’s still used as a packaging material. A lot of people are unaware of the hazards of using polystyrene. According to the Ashland Food Cooperative, packaging forms about one-thirds of the municipal wastes in the United States. Not only does Styrofoam cause pollution during its production from petroleum (a fast-disappearing resource and an emitter of greenhouse gases), it also wreaks havoc on the organisms that ingest it. In fact, data states that by 2050, 99% of birds will have plastic in their guts! In developing countries cattle consume plastic which eventually causes its death.
Let us take a look at the major disadvantages of using Styrofoam packaging.
Depletion of Natural Resources
The packaging industry is the single-largest consumer of plastic globally. Plastic production uses up large quantities of fossil fuels that are exhausting at lightning speed. Hence, plastic production is unsustainable and cost-ineffective. As oil prices soar, plastic production will no longer be feasible. Moreover, tight legislation in U.S.A and EU has drilled on polluters, making them pay through the nose for the environmental damage they are causing. This is forcing companies to look for more green and environment friendly products.
Almost 14 million tons of plastic is dumped into landfills every year. An estimated 80%-90% of marine debris is plastic. Being lightweight, plastic floats on the water surface and breaks down gradually by sunlight and waves. But it never really disappears.
Ocean currents have deposited plastic into literal islands of plastic. In 1997, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch was discovered in the North Pacific Ocean. Four more garbage patches have been found since then. Not all plastic packaging can be recycled. Most of it lands up in landfills and sea beds.
Plastic manufacturing uses and creates a large number of chemical pollutants that persist in the environment forever. Benzene produced in large quantities during plastic production is a proven carcinogen. Styrene, dioxins and bisphenol pollute soil and water. Potentially harmful emissions of Chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) and volatile organic compounds are responsible for ozone layer depletion, acid rain and smog leading to global warming.
Broken down plastic in water bodies is ingested by marine organisms and can enter human bodies through food chains. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that nearly one million seabirds and 100,000 sea mammals are affected by plastic ingestion. UNEP has conducted a research that proves that plastic ingestion by humans can be linked to cancer and reproductive system impairment in animals and humans. For this reason, plastic pollution has been recognized as the top environmental issue by UNEP.
Ecocradle is a completely natural packaging material that is grown from fungi types such as mushrooms. The manufacturing process is fairly simple: agricultural byproducts such as husk, oat hulls and cotton burrs, are pressed into a desired shape that can fit around items to be packaged. Then, it is seeded with mushroom spores that sprout mycelium (a root structure) after a few days. The mycelium threads rapidly through the structure and binds it together to form a shock-resistant and durable packaging material. The last step is to heat-treat the material to kill spores in order to arrest further growth of the fungus.
Here are the top benefits of using mushroom-based packaging:
- It uses only 12% of the energy used in plastic production.
- It produces 90% less carbon emissions than produced during plastic manufacture.
- The total amount of carbon dioxide component in atmosphere remains almost undisturbed by growing fungi-based packaging. Fungi uses up carbon dioxide that gets incorporated into the packaging material. On disposal, packaging material gets decomposed or composted and returns the carbon dioxide back into the soil.
- It decomposes with 30–90 days. Even if it is ingested by organisms, it has no dangerous side effects, although it has no nutritional benefits either.
- Alternative packaging is a lucrative economic avenue. The global market for sustainable packaging is poised to reach more than US $142 billion in coming years. Presently, bio-plastics and green materials just constitute 1% of total packaging market share, so there is immense growth potential for manufacturers in this segment.
- Rural communities can benefit financially by supplying agricultural wastes to mycelium manufacturers.
Non-petroleum based packaging can help reduce human reliance on fossil fuels, decrease carbon emissions into the atmosphere, counter the hazardous impact of plastic wastes and protect the biodiversity of our earth. Mushroom-based packaging is not only a boon for the environment but also a cost-effective and sustainable alternative to its petroleum-based counterparts.