We are slowly burying our planet under a mountain of waste – polystyrene for example. Polystyrene (that white and squeaky stuff that we used to play with when we were kids) is one of the most common types of plastic, with an annual production and consumption of several billion kilograms, or millions of tons.
This is just a factual statement, a number that cannot fully illustrate the spread of this lightweight and strong material, derived from oil. Packing and protecting all things fragile, such as glass, TV sets and medical instruments, insulating buildings (found, for example, on most of Bucharest’s rehabilitated apartment buildings), acting as a toy or as a disposable coffee cup destined for the trash can, polystyrene can take countless shapes.
What should worry us is the fact that we still don’t have a method for disposing of or recycling this material, which occupies around 25% of our landfills. How do you feel knowing that the packaging of the food that you ate today will last for millennia? Is this the legacy you want to leave for future generations?
An ingenious solution for replacing polystyrene packaging has been developed by Gavin McIntyre and Eben Bayer, graduates of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and founders of Ecovative Design from Green Island, New York. The material they came up with is a blend of organic waste (rice or cotton husks, suitable for China, oat husks in the case of the US, wooden biomass, etc.) and fungi “roots” (the mycelium – a network of filaments which make up the reproductive apparatus of a fungus) acting as a kind of glue.
In order to create this new type of packaging, called Mycobond, organic waste is mixed with mycelia in a mold (which can have any shape desired) and left in a dark environment for 5 to 7 days, without adding water or other petrochemical substances. Fungi digest and bond together the waste, creating a neatly structured material and acting as natural glue. Every cubic inch of Mycobond contains a matrix made of around 8 miles of mycelium fibers. At the end of this process, the bio-composite is dehydrated and thermally treated in order to stop the growth of filaments. This stage also eliminates problems related to allergens and spores.
By using the mycelium as a bonding agent, it is possible to model objects in the same way as in the plastics industry, and one can create materials with various properties, such as insulators, fire or moisture-resistant substances, vapor-proof or shock-absorbing products. To my mind, their most important attribute is the fact that such substances are fully biodegradable: you can leave the packaging in the garden as natural fertilizer and it will be 100% eliminated, nourishing the soil in the process.
Equally important, the production of these materials requires only 1/8th of the necessary energy needed for creating traditional packaging and releases only 1/10th of the amount of CO2. Because raw materials are themselves renewable, they have the added advantage of being shielded from the fluctuations of oil prices, which affect other synthetic materials.
Do you think that I am just promoting this process and these products for free? Of course I do. Fungi-based bio-composites are profitable and can be manufactured anywhere in the world. Ideally, they should be made locally, substantially reducing the energy consumption required by transportation. Since little equipment is needed for establishing a factory, they could appear “like mushrooms” all over the world. Could this be the future of our packaging?
Article written by Alexandra Petre and translated by Mihail MItoșeriu.