Instead of building more factories to meet consumer demand, by working with biology we can make more of the manufacturing infrastructure we already have, with far less waste
By Eben Bayer- Co-founder and CEO of Ecovative
Reducing consumption is the ultimate solution to a sustainably stewarded Spaceship Earth. But let's be real: consumption is showing no signs of slowing. So, just as important as changing hearts and minds is changing the way we make things. By reimagining material goods as part of living cycles, we can expand and reimagine existing manufacturing capacity to be more resilient and adaptable. Moving from extractive and polluting manufacturing to cyclical and even regenerative processes. Just look down — mycelium shows us the way.
Mycelium: a multifaceted material
People often think that our company, Ecovative, makes things out of mushrooms. But really we work with mycelium, the fibrous living fungal network from which mushrooms grow. One way to think of mycelia is as natural, self-assembling polymers, capable of expressing incredibly complex structures with a practically endless range of material qualities. Those qualities, many of them yet to be discovered, give us a lot of hope. As civilization struggles to find ways of reducing waste on one hand, and meeting growing demand for food and materials on the other, it's little wonder that mycelium is sparking a revolution in consumer goods. Mycelium and biofabrication more generally suggest a whole new paradigm for making what we need in an ecologically responsible way.
Working with fungi means harnessing processes that have evolved over hundreds of millions of years. Traditionally, the goal there is indeed to harvest mushrooms, but the methods are largely the same when working with mycelia. Mycelium grows through its food — the industry term is 'substrate', often consisting of agricultural byproducts like grain hulls or wood chips — converting the nutrients into fungal tissues, and binding the whole works together. At Ecovative, we've learned that fungi can also be coaxed to grow above its substrate to produce pure mycelium that's valuable for a wide range of food and material applications. Each fungal filament grows independently, but intelligently, weaving together into a complex meshed structure with natural tensile strength, resistance to water, flame and decay, among other useful qualities. In the wild, mycelium's binding ability is what holds soil together and prevents erosion; it was this quality that first inspired our work 15 years ago. There are still plenty of lessons to be learned from them. While growing, fungi create not waste, but instead nutrition for successive waves of life. When the mycelium dies, it — and whatever it has digested — become compost. In their very ways of being, fungi reinforce the ecosystems they're part of, even as they meet their own needs, feeding back into their host ecologies. We can take our cue from them — after all, there is no such thing as waste in nature, so why should manufacturing be any different?
In agriculture and industry, of course, there is immense waste. But as luck would have it, these are some of fungi's favorite foods. Fungi can therefore help us to 'close loops' with existing waste streams, while meeting human needs for food and material. Mushrooms are already a major food crop, and growing mycelium is not all that different from growing mushrooms (as far as the farmer is concerned). It's akin to harvesting roots instead of fruits, only in this case the 'roots' can supplement a massive share of the demand for animal-sourced meat or leather.
Flexible manufacturing and farming
Now for the really exciting part. This similarity means that existing mushroom farms can easily switch or expand to include mycelium, opening a range of emerging industrial markets with higher price points than the highly commoditized button mushroom, and which they can meet while reducing waste instead of producing it. Mushroom farmers, especially those that grow the über-common 'button' mushrooms, can be analogized with chicken or pork producers. Situated at the base of a massive market complex, they often get squeezed first, and most, by price fluctuations or supply chain issues. This approach affords exciting new market opportunities. It's also a step towards a world where our materials we need are produced — actually grown — nearby where they'll actually be used, instead of shipped over massive distances, working directly with nature instead of flooding our air, soil and waterways with contaminating chemicals and excess carbon. The primary outputs of mycelium-powered manufacturing is clean water vapor, compost, and a small amount of CO2 (one thing animals share in common with fungi is that we each "breathe" oxygen). In this light, factories begin to look more like parts of an ecosystem, and that's the direction we should be moving.
The 'Dutch style' farms found throughout Europe and North America feature towering racks of steel surface area, fillIng climate-controlled rooms that incubate mycelia to the point where they produce mushrooms. By simply adapting these existing mushroom facilities to produce mycelium hides, meats, packing and construction materials and so on, it is possible to scale mycelium materials while helping the mushroom farmers bring new lines of sustainable industrial materials to market, without the need to design and build new facilities.
This is more than an idea, it's already happening. Earlier this year, Ecovative’s spin-out company, Atlast Food Co., partnered with a major Canadian mushroom farm, Whitecrest, and successfully farmed mycelium in their facilities. Soon they'll be producing 3 million pounds of mycelium in a facility with a footprint of less than an acre. We see this approach to adapting existing mushroom growing infrastructure as key to achieving the scale that will be necessary to impact the meat, leather, and other industries where Ecovative is bringing mycelium solutions for a more sustainable manufacturing infrastructure. Following the successful trial of AirMycelium™ technology, we see the path to a future where mushroom farmers can easily adopt mycelium manufacturing to open up entirely new markets — new to them and, for now, to most of the world — without creating new supply or waste streams, building new structures or installing new capital equipment. All they really have to adapt is the substrate used to feed the fungi, the environmental conditions, and the marketing to bring it to customers.
There are still steps to work out before this approach can scale globally, which must occur if we are to truly make a dent on industrial waste. Substrate production, for example, will need to ramp up to feed the growth of new mycelium products. For the mushroom grower, meeting that demand means utilizing a biotechnology that allows them to switch from growing mycelium leather or meats to mushrooms and back as needed. Rather than the equipment, it is the mycelium and the substrate that are the specialized components — the factory itself becomes general purpose, while the organism serves as the synthesizer, assembler, and orchestrator of a delicate molecular dance, creating radically different materials from the natural inputs. That is a whole new paradigm for manufacturing consumer goods.
By changing how we make things, I believe that we think about the role of manufacturing on a living planet, which can ultimately change how and how much we consume. Collapsing ecologies and growing waste streams are problems we can't hesitate to address. Thankfully, fungi have had a few hundred million years of a head start to work out sustainable ways of living on Spaceship Earth. They distribute and diversify, making no waste while they grow wherever there is an opportunity to deepen the conditions for life to thrive. It's past time we learn from their example.
Learn more about Ecovative’s AirMycelium technology here.
Domestic Material Consumption 1970 to 2017: https://environmentlive.unep.org/sdg/country_profile/globalindicator1222.html?country=GL