With the challenge of the climate crisis ahead of us, it is unequivocal that we have to decarbonize everything and manage our resources wisely. This mission includes finding less resource-intensive and circular ways to produce materials that we need; whether it be for clothes that we wear daily, packaging to wrap take-away meals, and bricks that make up our house. The answer to the quest for sustainable materials may be something that is present anywhere around us, although most of the time they are unseen and considered dirty: mushrooms!
What are mushrooms?
Though mushrooms are commonly viewed to be a food item, ‘mushrooms’ actually refers to a more general term of fungi – organisms that are relatively simple and can be found in various environments.
Fungi takes on two forms: some are shaped just like a single cell (called yeast), but typically, fungi have thin, long filaments called hyphae which will make up a matrix called mycelium. Although some fungi cause diseases, they also have positive contributions to our world. A prominent example of mushroom’s usefulness is tempeh: fungal mycelium binds soybeans together and increases the availability of nutrients. But here’s a fun fact: mushroom’s biggest contribution is being an excellent degrader of elements, especially carbon, sustaining the loop of materials in our ecosystem. They rely on organic materials, alive or dead, to feed themselves.
Besides that, they also have chemical pathways to reduce hazardous risks from inorganic soil pollutants. This trait, and the fact that they are somewhat easy to grow, make them an eco-friendly choice to be processed into functional goods. Fungi with hyphae is the kind of mushroom which is already utilized for that purpose.
Here are some mushroom alternatives that have been developed:
Tanning animal leather needs a lot of energy and dangerous chemicals such as chromium; it also modifies the collagen or protein in animal skin in such a way that they become undegradable. A common alternative is synthetic leather made from petrochemicals and they lack options for disposal. On the other hand, mushroom-derived leather can be made from mild chemicals, grown from agricultural waste, and still be biodegradable. They have similar visual and tactile properties to usual leather, as well as similar durability. Indonesian company Mycotech Lab has produced mushroom leather with the trademark “Mylea”. It has been applied for shoes, wallets, watch straps, bags, and earrings. Mylea is naturally light-colored with brown patches, and its black version is dyed with natural colorant.
When buried, conventional coffins will leach metal fragments, wood preservatives, and paint that are used to make them. This leads to contamination of ground water in and surrounding the cemetery land. For burial to be more environmentally friendly, Loop Biotech invented a coffin named "Living Cocoon" made out of living mushroom and filled with a bit of moss to boost degradation. The coffin is grown out of waste in the Netherlands for only a week! Moreover, Living Cocoon will also neutralize toxins that are released from the dead body. Living Cocoon takes
approximately 3 years to degrade the body, far quicker than traditional coffin which takes 10-20 years.
We often found product packaging made of styrofoam and plastic, which are difficult to decompose in soil and often end up in the ocean. Eben Bayer found a sustainable way to reduce these fossil fuel-derived misfits: mushroom packaging. Ecovative, a leading market in this industry, uses hemp hurd and mycelium as their only two ingredients. The mycelium in this mushroom packaging can be grown into various shapes, using a sample of the product used. They also have developed Mushroom Packaging products including breakaway corners, shoebox coolers, as well as sample parts for custom designs.
The production of standard building materials are significant contributors to the building industry’s massive carbon footprint. Just like the technologies above, mycelium can also be altered to building bricks. One example is the Hy-Fy, a 133-meter-tall tower built by The Living Embodied Computation Lab commissioned by Princeton University that was made entirely from crop waste and specially-formulated mycelium. Three months later, the team disassembled the tower and composted the bricks which resulted in fertile soil.
…and the list goes on and on. In conclusion, with the right technology, mushrooms play a massive part in helping to decrease the environmental impacts of a variety of products. The big question is, how will we use these ground-breaking innovations to take a great leap in the climate movement?
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