Mycelium is the mass of branched fibers comprising the vegetative part of a mushroom. It can prove to be the ultimate green material for the future as it can be turned into everything from fashionable handbags, to packaging, to even bricks. It is a safe, strong, and biodegradable material with a wide range of uses. Unlike plastics and other synthetic materials, which can take hundreds of years to decompose, mycelium-based products naturally degrade after their intended product cycle.
These products will help create a circular economy, which aims to eliminate waste and transform how we produce and use goods. It is estimated that the circular economy could offer up to $4.5 trillion in global economic benefits by 2030, alongside environmental benefits such as lower emissions and better land use.
Five sustainable alternatives that can be made with mycelium are:
1. Greener building materials
Mycelium composites, made by growing mycelium on agricultural waste – can create low-cost and greener building materials, which could help reduce reliance on fossil fuel-based products in the construction industry.
Mycelium-based bricks created by Ecovative Design made the headlines in 2014 when they were used in an award-winning compostable tower at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Meanwhile, Redhouse Architecture says it can recycle derelict homes by demolishing buildings and mixing the remains with mycelium to create new material – a process which could also create temporary homes in disaster zones using a portable ‘biocycler’.
2. Sustainable clothing
Clothing manufacturers are increasingly turning to mycelium to create green alternatives to leather and synthetic textiles. These could prove vital in reducing the carbon footprint of the fashion industry, which is one of the world’s most polluting sectors.
Examples include MycoWorks’ leather alternative, Reishi, which was unveiled at New York Fashion Week and hailed by Vogue as “nothing short of revelatory”. Meanwhile, Bolt Threads has signed a deal with global fashion houses including Adidas and Stella McCartney to use its mycelium-based textile Mylo in products like footwear, clothing, and accessories.
3. Compostable packaging
Mycelium can be used to make standard and custom-molded packaging that is 100% biodegradable, thereby reducing reliance on plastic and polystyrene. Mushroom Packaging uses hemp hurds and mycelium to create water-resistant and insulating solutions that compost within 30 days when added to the soil.
Swedish furniture giant IKEA and computer manufacturer Dell are some of the biggest businesses to have already committed to using mycelium-based packaging, with smaller firms such as UK-based non-alcoholic spirit maker Seedlip also joining the trend.
4. Animal-free meat
Mycelium can also be used to make plant-based ‘meats’. Unlike other meat alternatives which predominantly come in-ground forms, such as burgers or mince, mycelium can be grown into a 3D form or shaped post-processing.
Meati, a Colorado-based alt-meat brand, claims its mycelium-based products will eventually use 99% less water and land and emit 99% less carbon than industrially-produced animal meat.
5. Disposable healthcare products
In a bid to address disposable plastics in the beauty industry, Ecovative Design has created MycoFlex foam, which the company says is 100% compostable. The foam can be used in anything from make-up sponges to single-use slippers and masks.
As for the future, the company thinks mycelium will be capable of creating medical products, even organs.
“My dream is to one day grow a lung and seed it with lung cells and use the mycelium to create the capillary network and use the human cells to create the actual lung,” CEO Eben Bayer told CNN.
If this sounds a stretch, Tradd Cotter, microbiologist, and owner of the research company, Mushroom Mountain, sounded a similarly optimistic note in National Geographic,
“As far as [mushrooms’] versatility in agriculture, medicine, and in the laboratory, there’s not much they can’t do.”