––––––––––––––––––––Part 3 of 4 in our Plastic Free July series––––––––––––––––––––
Babies weren't the only thing that proliferated after the second World War. Plastics provided a booming post-war middle class with reliable, durable materials. They would come to represent technological wonder, economic abundance and, of course, convenience. Sleek new TVs and toasters symbolized a dawning future of plenty. With the ability to create all new materials, the 20th century also such an explosion of new applications and products that our society now depends on the stuff, and is creating mountain ranges of trash that will take centuries to break down.
Now we're at a crossroads. Modern life requires the ability to make lots and lots of useful, durable things, from clothing to packaging to food. We are a consumer society, and there is no sign that this will voluntarily change. If we want a planet with healthy ecosystems and pollution free land, air and water, humanity must either wean ourselves off the things we use and love, or find a better way of meeting that need.
We like the second option, but there's no doubt we have to be more responsible about what and how much we consume. Some of the most exciting opportunities for this are in mycelium.
📷: LaraKR53, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
At Ecovative, we work with mycelium not just as a living organism, but as a material. We grow it in carefully controlled conditions to make sustainable packing materials, leather-like hides, high performance foams for fashion and apparel, and other products that usually involve a lot of plastic. As we covered in the previous post, nature makes all sorts of polymers, defined as having long, consistent chains of molecules that provide strength, flexibility, and other useful properties.
Mycelium itself is actually a polymer, or what we call a biopolymer. The molecules that give it strength include chitin, the same compound found in insect shells. Depending on the growing conditions, the three-dimensional structure of its cellular strands of mycelium add another crucial layer of complexity, able to mimic the collagen patterns in cowhide and other animal flesh.
📈: Gibson LJ., Islam, M. R., Tudryn, G., Bucinell, R., Schadler, L., & Picu, R. C., Haneef, M., Ceseracciu, L., Canale, C. et al, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Mycelium adapts to its environment, and grows into different forms depending on the situation. As a potential replacement for plastic, this means that mycelium can be tuned in the growing process for greater durability, flexibility, tensile strength, texture, moldability, and other traits. Traditional manufacturing methods like heat compression are still useful, making it possible to further dial in properties depending on the intended use, just like with plastics from a chemical lab. The difference between fossil fuel derived plastics and mycelium, of course, is that mycelium is completely Earth-compatible, biodegrading unto nutrients instead of pollutants.
These abilities were always latent in mycelium, and unlocking them required a deeper understanding of how fungi work and how to work with them. Mycelium has only really been a commercial category of materials for about 15 years, and is just now starting to enjoy widespread public recognition, acceptance, and even excitement (we share it!). Even in these early stages of a biomaterials revolution, we are steadily replacing things like Styrofoam. That is a major benefit for the environment, data from 2018 alone shows some half a million tons of polystyrene packaging and containers were produced, and at least two thirds of it ended up in landfills.
There are also advantages to working with a self-assembling material like mycelium. Consider, for example, that mycelium are essentially networks of hollow tubes. When alive, these cavities carry cellular fluids and organelles. When intert, they provide unique thermal properties, creating the opportunity for unique materials, like foams with breathable structures, that still offer full thermal insulation.
Even as mycelium materials become more common replacements for plastic, we are still only at the beginning of what is possible. To our eyes, the sight of any mycelium-made object is just as futuristic as a bakelite radio must have seemed to someone in the early 20th century. And mycelium counts as just one — very special, in our experience — biomaterial among many. Everything from algae to cactus to spider silk to seaweed are being tested as more sustainable mass market materials, with their own unique qualities and regenerative potential that together could see us replacing plastic in all but the most special cases. And maybe that is as it should be. After all, plastics are amazingly useful, and if used responsibly to make things that last and stay out of the landfill, they can and will continue to improve and provide convenience for our lives. It's not just important to shift where we get our materials from and how we use them, but also that we value them in terms of their impact on the planet.
At a certain point, biotechnology will allow us not just to replace single-use plastics and other unsustainable materials, but to create entirely new materials and uses. After all, the chemistry that's taking place inside and among living cells is lightyears beyond anything happening in a plastics lab, which makes the fields of mycelium and biomaterials as much about discovery as invention. We have the opportunity to leverage the amazing power of nature to the betterment of planet and people alike, and as that happens, people may come to question the use of plastics when so many better alternatives exist.
The cycles of biological life are at the core of everything we do, and those cycles depend on a functioning environment. So it only makes sense to reconnect the way we make and consume things with nature itself. That is the promise of mycelium and biomaterials. What could a world look like when our material needs are met in partnership with nature? That is the subject of the next and final post in this series.
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