Mushroom Mycelium to Build a Better World

50 shades of green mushrooms

Mycelium to Build a Sustainable Future

Aside from being productive and profitable, it’s increasingly common for successful businesses to strive for sustainability. And I don’t mean financial sustainability, but rather, they are looking for eco-friendly ways to run their companies. As we continue to see the expansion of residential and commercial areas, and the growth of production, manufacturing, and agriculture, it should come as no surprise that many of our natural spaces and resources are experiencing a sharp decline.

Sustainability can have slightly varying meanings based on the context in which it’s used, but in the broadest sense, it refers to how well something maintains itself over a longer period of time. Regarding businesses, there are many physical, geographical, environmental, and social limitations when it comes to formulating a culture of sustainability. As such, there are three main pillars to consider when making your plan: the economy, the environment, and society as a whole, also casually known as “profit, people and planet”.

Initially, only a small number of self-proclaimed “green” brands prioritized sustainability efforts, but over the last decade, we have seen a growing number of companies that are treating this as an important objective to help boost their global competitiveness. Much like hemp being used in everything from textiles, to building materials, to soil phytoremediation – mushroom mycelium composites are emerging as a class of mediums that are affordable, easy to produce, environmentally sustainable, and can be utilized by a huge range of industries.

Although we’re only just beginning to realize the true potential of this incredibly versatile product, researchers have already found that it can be used to create stronger, lighter, fire-resistant building materials such as brick, textiles like leather, various food products such as imitation meat, biofuels, medications, and several other items we use in our day-to-day lives. With so many industries in desperate need of more natural and sustainable solutions, fungal mycelium offers a world of endless possibilities.

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What is mycelium? 

First and foremost, mycelium, or the mycelium network, is not exclusive to mushrooms. It’s found in most fungi and bacterial colonies. If you look at how mycelium forms, it almost resembles the tree of life, with long, thin filaments branching from a central “stem”. Individually, they are called hyphae, and collectively they are known as the mycelium. Each fungal spore produces a mycelium, which is not capable of sexually reproducing until it finds another compatible mycelium. When two compatible mycelia connects, they form a dikaryotic mycelium, which can in turn produce a mushroom.  

Most mycelia are found underground, but they are also present near the roots of various plants and around rotting wood. They have an incredibly important role in their ecosystem as a means for communication between various plants and organisms. As a matter of fact, roughly 92 percent of plants have a symbiotic relationship with these organisms, known as a mycorrhiza. The word “mycorrhiza” can be broken down into the Greek root words “mukès rhiza”, meaning “fungus root”.  

Not all fungi form mycorrhizal relationships. Some saprophytes and parasitic mycelium exist, which scavenge for food and or absorb it from a living host. However, in a standard mycorrhizal connection, the fungus helps the plant absorb water and nutrients from the soil, while the plant provides the fungus with sugar from photosynthesis. Additionally, the fungi act as a defense mechanism for the plant, helping to shield it from pathogens as well as helping the plant more quickly trigger its own self-defense mechanisms.  

Mycorrhiza fungi can grow either around the outside of the plant’s roots (ectomycorrhiza) or inside them (endomycorrhiza). Plants depend on these interactions with mycorrhizal fungi, and studies have shown that if the mycorrhiza is damaged or removed from the plant, its health, growth, and yields will likely be hindered.  

Earth-friendly building materials

Mycelium composites can be used to produced low-cost, eco-friendly building materials that will make many sectors of the construction industry less dependent on fossil fuels and other materials that are more difficult to manufacture. These composites can be formed into bricks, and they’re easily made by growing mycelium on agricultural waste. 

A handful of innovative companies are showing interest, such as Ecovative Design which made headlines back in 2014 when they used mycelium-based mediums to build a compostable tower at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Another company, Redhouse Architecture, said it can essentially recycle old, dilapidated houses by demolishing the structures and mixing the rubble with mycelium to form a new home-building material. This process is referred to as ‘biocycling’,  

Mycelium composites have low thermal conductivity, high acoustic absorption rates, and superior fire safety properties. Not only that, but they can take on many different forms and are highly customizable. As such, mycelium can be used to replace a number of different products such as foams, timbers, insulation, door cores, paneling, flooring, cabinetry, and much more.  

Sustainable textiles and clothing 

The fashion industry is one of the world’s most polluting, right up there with oil and agriculture. Research has found that the fashion sector consumes a substantial amount of water and produces roughly 10 percent of global emissions.  

The demand for low-priced clothing that is made at rapid speeds means that these clothes quickly break down and need to be mass-produced from oil-based textiles. This has only exacerbated the problem, as these methods are not sustainable in the long run. Not only is the production of these items an issue, but so is their disposable. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans were throwing around 1,700 tons of textiles into landfills. By 2017, the number spiked tenfold to 11,150 tons. 

To reduce their carbon footprint, more brands are exploring greener alternatives. Fabric harvested from mushroom mycelium cells is very similar to leather, and it’s a great alternative for both traditional leather and polyester-based vegan leather that can be used to make clothing, shoes, and various accessories.  

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One of the qualities I find most fascinating about two of my favorite plants, cannabis and mushrooms, is that both can be used to detoxify their surrounding environments. With cannabis it’s called phytoremediation, and with mushrooms is mycoremediation, but they both fall under the larger umbrella of bioremediation, which is a method of removing pollutants and contaminants from the earth using natural sources.  

The way it works with mycelium is based on the how it digests nutrients. While most living organisms ingest food sources and then break it down inside their bodies, mycelium does it the other way around by excreting a substance, similar to stomach acid, into their environments that breaks down nutrients before consumption.  

Because hyphae basically pre-digest their food before eating it, they also inadvertently eliminate contaminants that are otherwise not biodegradable including but not limited to: heavy metals, organic pollutants, textile dyes, leather tanning chemicals and wastewater, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, pharmaceuticals and personal care products, pesticides and herbicides, and petroleum-based products. These techniques could be applied to land, freshwater, and ocean/marine environments, and mycelium is known to facilitate new growth after cleansing these areas.

Biodegradable packaging  

One of the most notable dangers to the environment, and possibly to human health, is plastic. As of 2018, over 40 percent of packaging is made from single-use plastic, meaning it’s used just once and then discarded. Plastics contain and leach hazardous chemicals, including endocrine-disrupting chemicals which can interfere with our hormonal function and cause numerous different illnesses. Add to that, the majority of plastic waste is not recycled. It piles up in landfills and those same chemicals that seep into our bodies are also polluting the environment.  

Much of this is attributable to Styrofoam. By volume, Styrofoam products take up roughly 30 percent of global landfill space. Styrofoam is a petrochemical that is known to cause immunological, renal, hematological, and developmental disorders. It’s also extremely difficult to recycle, it takes about 500 years to degrade, and when exposed to heat and sunlight, it creates harmful pollutants that circulate through the atmosphere. 

One of the more popular alternatives uses for mycelium these days is to make custom-molded packaging that replaces standard Styrofoam. Combining mushroom mycelium with hemp hurds, manufacturers are able to produce insulated, biodegradable, waterproof materials that compost in just a few weeks. It looks and functions almost exactly like Styrofoam while reducing our over-reliance on polystyrene plastic, and it degrades naturally after its intended lifecycle.

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For industries aiming to be more eco-friendly, the time to make a plan and lock in sustainable long-term solutions is right now. There are a couple of important things to keep in mind when considering natural alternatives for existing products, however. First, despite showing a lot of promise as a material that’s easy and affordable to produce, it needs to be just as convenient to use, if not more so, than what is currently being used. Companies can promise to ‘go green’ all they want, but we know that won’t happen if it isn’t profitable for them.

Credit: Alexandra Hicks

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