Imagining a Future Beyond Plastics
Closeup of mycelium. 📷: Christian Scheckhuber, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
––––––––––––––––––––Part 4 of 4 in our Plastic Free July series––––––––––––––––––––
When plastics first emerged, they promised to usher in a new era of abundance and convenience. The look and feel of plastics was so new and unusual that it became emblematic of human scientific achievement, and transformed our expectations of what the future could deliver. Sure enough, we got tons of cool new products, and had our ways of life transformed. Now plastic is everywhere, and as we've covered in previous posts, that's part of the problem.
Knowing what we know now, the future will certainly involve plastic — in part because there's already so much of it, and in part because there are certain number of things for which it is an ideal solution. But for many of the things plastics are used for, especially "disposable" or single-used products, a better alternative is needed. The way forward to a sustainable future and a high quality of living will in some ways be a return, both to connection with nature and to the cycles of life of which we are part and on which we depend.
All our materials used to come straight from nature, and in the earliest days of humanity, it meant a reciprocal relationship with our environment. But as populations grew and settled, so did our appetites for materials, and over the centuries our technological civilization became increasingly extractive. Deforestation, pollution, erosion, and extinction of countless species are just some of the consequences. Now, many enjoy a higher standard of living than ever in human history, but that can only last if we change the way we make the things we need.
Conceptual render of shoe grown from mycelium. 📷: Ecovative
The answer is a combination of nature and technology, or biotechnology, which has opened up the world of biomaterials. Biomaterials like mycelium may offer us a way to reconnect the ways we consume with the cycles of life. With the ability to grow everything we use, using natural processes without exploiting natural resources or extracting from natural environments, we can meet human needs while preserving that most important one of all: the living planet. Mycelium is where we see the greatest opportunity to achieve this transition, and the change is already underway.
Today, the first generation of biomaterials are hitting the market, using everything from mycelium to spider silk to algae and seaweed. At Ecovative, our mycelium materials target plastics and factory farming, aimed at replacing protective packing materials, plastic foams, and factory farming. Currently, special strains of mycelium are grown — or fermented — in vertical farms, harvested and then squished, heat treated, tanned or otherwise processed into the desired material. But these are just the first steps of working with this wondrous kingdom of life.
Ok, let's get a little futuristic for a second.
Most people know that fungi create their own structures, called mushrooms. While mushrooms are amazingly complex, with intricate microscopic details and architectures and a million different textures and qualities as materials — from jelly-like or paper-thin to hard as wood or lacquered like a guitar. They are all made of mycelium. Essentially, the mycelial cells bind together and contort to produce specialized parts of the mushroom — for example a soft, porous structure on one part, a hardened protective shell in another. This is what we call 'self assembly', the inherent knowledge and ability that these organisms possess for creating a whole universe of shapes, chemicals, and materials.
A mushroom producing enzymes. 📷: Immanuel Giel, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
The fungi's intuitive architectural abilities are thanks to genes buried within their DNA. These genes 'activate' different abilities under particular conditions or stimuli. In the not-too-distant future, it may be possible to toggle different gene expressions in mycelium so that they produce whole not just materials, but whole products with different properties. Imagine harvesting a mycelium shoe with a soft sole and a shiny, durable top like a Reishi mushroom. The possibilities are as endless as the different sorts of things we make and use.
Of course, we have grown the raw materials we use to make things for millennia, like wood. But unless you're just going to sit on a log, to be useful we must process it into the final product. The idea of simply growing the thing you need is revolutionary. Although it is not likely to happen in the near future, there's no telling how far this could go — many cells can conduct electricity, so who's to say we couldn't some day grow electronics? It's fun to imagine, if nothing else.
Close up of a mushroom pore surface. 📷: Dimitǎr Boevski, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Let's take it one step further. A particularly amazing thing that fungi can do is create a seemingly infinite variety of enzymes. Many mushrooms create complex chemical compounds to digest food or fend off competition, but many also have medicinal benefits for humans. This is why mushrooms like Reishi and Lion's Mane have been used in medicine for centuries. There is a tantalizing possibility of some day coaxing mycelium into generating all kinds of specialized 'biopharmaceuticals', essentially turning them into living medicine factories. Imagine picking a mushroom that contains naturally produced, bioavailable insulin. The possibilities seem endless.
This may seem unrelated to plastics, but it is all connected. Plastics aren't just a problem because of what they do to the environment. They are also a problem for the mentality they engender in our relationship to what we make and consume, and to the planet itself. We should ask, how can anything be "disposable"? Everything on Earth is of Earth, and has a role to play. If we think about the full lifecycle of the packaging or building materials or things that we wear, and choose to see that it builds soil rather than contaminating it, we will have solved a deeper problem than just plastic pollution.
Plastics have allowed us to create an immense amount of utility and convenience, but also an immense amount of harm to the environment. We don't see mycelium and other biomaterials as just a replacement for plastics. We see them as offering an entirely different paradigm for how humans make the things we need, and a way of doing so that keeps us in harmony with Spaceship Earth. In a way, this is a chance to reclaim the relationship we one had to the planet, achieved through biotechnology and aimed at meeting the modern quality of life sustainably. It's an exciting prospect, and we couldn't be more excited about leading the charge.