Sustainability, Simplified: Mushroom Materials - Fad or Scalable Solution?
Are keeping the earth beautiful and being beautiful mutually exclusive? From disposable beauty tools to the shipping materials they come in, waste permeates the beauty industry in ways that can no longer be overlooked.
According to the United Nations, packaging makes up 36 percent of all plastics, with 85 percent of those ending up in landfills. Food grade mushroom packaging is a viable solution to replace traditional commercial packaging, yet its potential still faces obstacles as a scalable solution.
Materials derived from mushrooms can offer a viable alternative to Styrofoam packaging, which can be effectively scaled with continued development.
- It is functionally comparable with styrofoam.
- Mushroom packaging utilizes renewable resources that include agricultural waste products.
- Mushroom packaging creates significantly less environmental impact.
- Obstacles remain for mushroom packaging to have future scalability involving longer production times and sustaining a competitive price point.
Currently, sustainable packaging can be costly and prohibitive to scale for stakeholders across the value chain. Therefore, sustainable packaging solutions require innovative technologies that can maintain resource efficiency as much as affordability.
Under the right conditions, mycelium can turn agricultural waste into a material that challenges the moldability and durability of the toxic ex-boyfriend of packaging; styrofoam. Below we lay out our case for the future of fungi.
Are Mushroom Materials A Fad Or The Future Of Packaging?
In 2009, inspired by his childhood on a Vermont farm, Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre sought to innovate low-impact packaging from agricultural waste byproducts. After three years of trial and error, they created a first-of-its-kind company, Ecovative, which successfully created functional mushroom packaging, a functional and biodegradable alternative to Styrofoam.
“Our Mycelium Foundry draws from a world-class biological library and uses cutting edge biotechnology to test the natural properties of specific mushroom strains, amplifying them for unique material applications at scale.”
Since then, several other big players have come into the mushroom packaging conversation; however, Ecovative has maintained its controlling market share with innovative new applications and designs.
How Is Mushroom Packaging Made?
According to Science Direct, mushroom packaging is produced when mycelium cells, which are the fast-growing vegetative part of a fungus, transform crop waste such as corn stalks or rice hulls into composites in a matter of days.
Growing mushroom packaging goes something like this:
- Mycelium (ground-up mushroom roots) are added to agricultural waste such as corn husks and hemp plant fibers.
- A mass of fibers develops over the mold, becoming white and firm.
- Once the desired shape is achieved, usually within 7-10 days, the mold is heated and dried to inhibit growth.
- The end product is fully biodegradable and can be composted in around 45 days.
What Products Can Be Made From Mycelium?
Mushroom materials have a diverse number of applications, including:
- Custom molded protective packaging
- Insulated coolers
- Skincare sponges
- Alternatives to plywood
What Are The Benefits Of Mushroom Packaging?
Minimal Energy Use
While harnessing the rapid growth power of mycelium, packaging can be manufactured in ambient temperatures with minimal energy use.
Low Impact Lifespan
Mushroom packaging can be grown and composted in contrast to the lifespan of polystyrene which sees it drilled, refined, and discarded.
Whereas styrofoam is made from oil, a limited resource, in an energy-consuming process, mushroom packaging uses renewable agricultural waste that requires less technology and natural resources to produce.
Excellent End Of Life Performance
Whereas Styrofoam is non-biodegradable and non-recyclable, Mushroom packaging can be composted in 30-45 days or kept dry and reused. Not only is it full compostable it is known as an active soil amendment, improving the plants that grow from its waste.
Function Over Fad
An ever-growing inventory of bio-based materials is being innovated to satisfy corporate sustainability goals, but not all are created equal.
Function can sometimes take a backseat in the quest to create sustainable solutions. Take, for example, the PLA-based bioplastics that will not biodegrade without the addition of high temperatures or will become brittle and break without additives.
In contrast, mushroom packaging has been innovated to not only satisfy a sustainability commitment but has also proven to be as structurally qualified as Styrofoam. Mushroom-based packaging has shown to have equivalent moldability, durability, and hydrophobic qualities as its styrofoam counterpart.
In addition, packaging grown from mycelium is renowned for its ability to compost and biodegrade with little intervention reducing overall waste and reducing any company's waste footprint.
Mushroom Packaging At Scale
Styrofoam has long held the crown in packaging due to its low cost, lightweight, and toughness. However, mushroom packaging is challenging every aspect of its dominance.
In order to overtake dominant oil-derived materials, mushroom packaging will have to find a way to match production speed (mushrooms grow fast, but not fast enough) and sustain competitive costs. Mushroom packaging also needs to find a sweet spot in being robust enough to sit on a shelf for several years yet degrade in just a few weeks.
While the price point for mushroom packaging is competitive, it has not yet overtaken its toxic adversaries. Despite this, in markets such as the beauty industry, where products are often delicate and of high value, there is a place for packaging that meets sustainability commitments and offers durable and aesthetically pleasing secondary packaging.
Aesthetically, using a mushroom-based protective box as secondary packaging finds a harmonious alignment with beauty brands whose identity is often aligned with an organic and sustainable ethos. The secondary packaging is the first thing the consumer will see and acts as primary brand messaging in line with “of the earth” principles.
Companies That Integrating Mycelium Packaging To Scale
Ikea, the ready-to-assemble home furniture giant, was one of the earliest large-scale adaptors of mushroom packaging. With over 400 stores worldwide, Ikea deals and an incredibly complex supply chain in which high-quality packing materials are paramount.
In 2016, seeking to reduce its impact on natural resources, the company partnered with Ecovative in an effort to commit to increasing its use of renewable and recyclable materials. The result of mushroom packaging integration in a company of Ikea’s size and potential influence gives scalability great hope.
Lush is an ethical retailer specializing in cruelty-free vegan and vegetarian cosmetics. Lush targets zero waste and maximum sustainability as its core values. They recently teamed with the Magical Mushroom Company to create a completely home-compostable, sustainable, and ethically produced box for seasonal launches.
Crate and Barrel
In 2011, Crate and Barrel became a packaging disruptor when it chose to support the first commercial manufacturer of mushroom packaging. Ecovative started with supplying just protective corner pieces but today replaces Expanded PolyStyrene (EPS) components for packaging and insulation.
The Future of Fungi As A Packaging Solution
There is a bright future for mushroom packaging. Look no further than the integration of mushroom packaging within major Fortune 500 companies for its scalability potential.
While making sustainability part of a packaging ethos was once a display of voluntary stewardship, mounting regulations regarding single-use plastics and styrofoam are expected to be a boon for the mushroom packaging market.
With innovations including space-conserving vertical growth production and experimentation with different stains of mycelium, mushroom packaging will continue to grow in its varying applications allowing it to compete in various niches.
Mushroom packaging’s renewable potential and functional structure make it an attractive alternative for any industry that relies on protective packaging. However, whether mushroom materials stay a niche solution or expand to compete on a larger scale depends solely on its ability to create sustainable packaging that can easily replace and fit into existing processes.