Can Mushrooms Magically Cure Our Styrofoam Dependence?

In a world where fewer consumers are shopping in brick and mortar stores, we’ve seen exponential increases in the amount of packaging arriving on our doorsteps. From home cooking kits to flat-pack furniture, our lives—and landfills—are increasingly filled with styrofoam packing. With the impacts of this becoming more evident than ever, consumers and brands are fighting back.

 

The Rise of Styrofoam

While “Styrofoam” is a trademarked brand, the product itself is known as closed-cell extruded polystyrene foam, or XPS. Developed in the 1940’s, it quickly rose as a cheap and effective way to pad items for shipping. In recent decades, the environmental impacts of XPS and other synthetic polymers have come to light, number one of which is the fact that the material takes hundreds of years to decay, leaving it to break apart and spread through our waterways and oceans. XPS and other materials not only have a lasting impact on the health of our planet, but our personal health as well. Polymers and plastics find their way through the food chain, consumed by the animals and fish we eat, and is found in the water we drink. Some estimates place our micro plastic consumption at 5 grams per week. But what can be done to ease our reliance on this and other synthetic structures?

 

Enter mushrooms. More specifically, mycelium.

 

Mycelium is the dense, root-like structure that forms underground and gives rise to the mushrooms we are familiar with. Since the early 2000’s researchers have worked to harness this biological web-like structure to create specific forms. It was found that under the right conditions, a dense, styrofoam-like form could be “grown” in virtually any shape desired. Better yet, this process is done using only agricultural waste products such as wood chips or hemp hurd, combined with the mycelium spores needed to form the rigid structure. This results in a strong, biodegradable structure that is a great insulator—all while using only 12% of the energy used in plastic production, and emitting 90% less CO2 equivalents.

 

Champion the Change

As this natural technology is commercialized, brands such as Seedlip have become early adopters and champions of mycelium packaging. Increasingly, brands have been actively pursuing a smaller carbon footprint, as consumers more closely scrutinize the excess use of synthetic packaging in the products they buy. In a massive shift, Ikea has announced that it will start using packing materials made with MycoComposite, a mycelium-based material developed by Ecovative Design.

While humans have produced more than 8 billion tons of plastic since the 1950’s, less than 10% of it has been recycled. Packaging innovations such as what we’re seeing with mycelium can create a huge shift towards limiting the output of synthetics into our environment. Brands can—and should—be at the center of this momentum, and it’s up to consumers to back those brands.