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Mycelium and its applications: from renewable packaging to plant-based meat

What if we could reduce plastic pollution by turning to natural materials that earth grows? Mushrooms could lead the way in reducing plastic waste

In 2006 Gavin McIntyre and his university colleague Eben Bayer started to seek out a material that could substitute thermoplastic polymers such as polystyrene. At that time, climate change and environmental issues were still out of the limelight. They explored the organisms originating from nature and focused on mycelium, the root structure of fungi: «Under the forest floor there is a network of mycelium which serves as nature’s glue». They began to harness it to provide a polystyrene packaging substitute and founded what we know today as the New-York based Biotech company Ecovative Design

Mycelium packaging is a mix of agricultural residue – hemp, wood chips or rice straw – bound with mycelium structures. The combination of these two different materials is what dictates performance. The mixture is put in molds of any desired capacity and placed in the dark – it doesn’t require neither light nor chemical additives. Over the course of four days, the mycelium grows and expands, driving all the energy for growth from the agricultural waste. There are no energy inputs, it’s a natural self-assembly process. «All of our species are not genetically engineered. They’re all wild organisms that we harvest from nature and we isolate. The unique characteristic of fungal biology is that you can take a little clipping and perpetuate it almost forever», McIntyre explained. The last part of the process consists in draining the final product to disable future growth. It helps reduce the amount of time as well as the amount of energy that is necessary for each product to grow into the shape. It minimizes waste and ensures total efficiency because the production concentrates on the exact amount of product required. Unlike polystyrene and other synthetic materials, which take years to decompose, mycelium deteriorates after its lifecycle. In this perspective, packaging materials are no longer deemed to be pollutants – they become key nutrients and enrich the soil returning to their original function. Mushroom-based products are turning out to be a cornerstone of the circular economy: they contribute to up-cycling by breathing new life into agricultural waste that otherwise would have few other uses and low economic value.

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Mushroom® Seed Starters Packaging

Mycelium foam has multiple applications that range from packaging and insulation to alternative meat. Based on the function mycelium needs to perform, Ecovative Design is able to tune its porosity, strength, resilience and fiber orientation so as to create flexible or a resistant and durable structure. Its nature results in two patented biomaterials developed by the Ecovative Team: MycoCompositeTM and MycoFlexTM. MycoCompositeTM employs mycelium as a binding agent for agricultural byproducts. It is molded into various products as the patented Mushroom Packaging®, mushroom insulation materials or interior design pieces of furniture. Due to its lightweight, it is easy to mold and shape. It is water-resistant since mycelium-based materials are hydrophobic and can adjust to several environmental conditions enduring the test of time. Ecovative’s business strategy centered on partnering with organizations around the world to harness mycelium technology and create additional mycelium-based products. They forged partnerships on three continents to decentralize the production of Mushroom Packaging®. All of their partners are growing mushroom packaging products using their locally-source agricultural residue. An example is the Magical Mushroom Company. As the UK’s first-ever production plant manufacturing mycelium products, they focus on mycelium-based packaging as well as providing interior design solutions. Their products encompass acoustic tiles and light pendants – they’re home-compostable and can be broken up and composted in the garden to add nutrition back to the soil.

Another of Ecovative’s partners in Europe, Loop Biotech, exploited the natural behavior of mushroom organisms to create the Loop Living Cocoon, the first compostable and bioactive coffin created by nature. In this process, mycelium becomes one with the earth – a source for new life. MycoFlexTM, the second Ecovative patented material sourced from mycelium, is a 100 percent compostable foam that enabled Ecovative to switch to sustainable and biodegradable materials. Plastic items have been replaced by Ecovative’s biological marvels. Their disposable skincare products are 100 percent bio-based and home-compostable and include make-up applicators, single-use slippers, toe spacers and sheet masks.

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Furniture by Ben Coney

Mycelium’s polymorph nature could incentivize additional solutions to encourage a departure from conventional materials. As seasoned experts in mycelium technology, Ecovative didn’t settle for growing mushrooms just for packaging, skincare and interior design solutions – they forged ahead and tackled the food industry. Mycelium has provided green alternatives to leather by mimicking animal skin, it could reproduce the same vasculature and structure of a steak. Ecovative Design focused on imitating animal muscle and founded its new food-focused entity Atlast Food Co. During their market research, they realized the majority of the meat people consume around the world are whole cut meat products, such as bacon. In the United States eighty percent of all the meat people eat, are whole cut meat products rather than ground meat products. The company’s drive to create a substitute of bacon led to extensive scientific research that lasted up to two years. They conducted experiments on six different species of mushrooms and identified an oyster mushroom tissue that provided the product with the right texture and nutrition and that was flavor-and-aroma neutral, which prevented it from adding any overbearing mushroom flavor. Once they discovered a material that suited their needs, the company started to develop a range of whole cut meat products, from seafood alternatives all the way to bacon. Mushroom mycelium was grown in trays through the process of solid-state fermentation so as to be cut and sliced into multiple shapes. Bacon is the first product Atlast launched on the market by the name of MyBacon – Bacon Without the Oink. MyBacon could disrupt the future of meat and pave the way to plant-based protein space, reducing both grocery costs and greenhouse emissions. The time-saving process experimented by Ecovative is an additional trait compared to factory farming processes. Raising cattle is a procedure that could last months, even years. Whereas, Atlast is able to grow and process its mushroom-based bacon within thirteen days. 

Ecovative took it a step further and inaugurated Mycelium Foundry One, their research facility which is destined to be an aerial mycelium research site. «In order to assess and conduct a science on mycelium materials, we’ve had to create our own assets» McIntyre points out. «We’ve been able to develop little incubators as well as resources that allow us to carry out laboratory experimentation that is directly translatable to scale». Ecovative’s aspiration is to employ the organisms’ natural programmability to grow formed materials in a single process. «All of the products that we grow, once they’ve completed their growth process, get ejected and they’re ready for their final use». They succeeded in moving away from traditional fermentation technology and created an entirely innovative low-impact, time-saving and cost-competitive bioprocess. The business expansion, along with their strategy to increase the number of partnerships to enhance the production of mycelium around the globe, reflects a rising consumer awareness concerning plastic materials’ and animal-based products’ impact on the planet. Although Ecovative Design is a B2B company, it managed to involve individual end consumers by making available Grow-It-Yourself kits to grow one’s own mycelium at home.

IMAGE GALLERY

Ecovative Design is a New York-based biotech company that grows mycelium (the root structure of mushrooms) and employs it as a natural binding agent to create compostable and renewable alternatives to plastics, leather, Styrofoam packaging, meat and more. Its main goals are to mitigate climate change and reduce plastic pollution by eliminating synthetic materials such as Styrofoam.

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