We all read the news some two years back: “Mushroom material are the new polystyrene. A great victory for nature!”. Dell and a bit later Ikea jumped on the Ecovative train (Read more). But now, in 2019, the news seems to have settled a bit and it’s time for some perspective.
How sustainable is this replacement? 
These are a few questions you’ve probably been asking yourself.

 

Eco-friendliness: is the global footprint smaller than the footprint of the original?

It appears that both consume a lot of energy

How is the mushroom material produced? First, the substrate is pre-wetted, mixed and sterilised or pasteurised (high temperature treatment). Then, it is inoculated with spawn and incubated in warm tunnels for at least two weeks. Finally, it is dried out, preferably in an oven.

Compared to the production of polystyrene: the refined oil derivate results from a polymerisation of styrene. This is industrially made by alkylation of benzene and ethylene and it is expanded to ‘grains’. These are then expanded and molten together.

Which one consumes less energy? We didn’t make the calculation, but you would expect someone to come up with numbers. According to our 40 years of experience, making substrate is a high-energy industry, making end products high value.

How big is the original problem?

There is no doubt that polystyrene is a huge problem. It is a lightweight plastic which gets washed into the oceans easily and once there, photodegrades into smaller particles like the infamous ‘microplastics’. Such particles can be found in all the oceans and in fat tissue of humans, animals and in land-based aquatic environments.

Reducing the amount of polystyrene in the environment by developing a replacement is definitely a good idea.

How achievable is the solution?

In other words: can this product be produced industrially, in sufficient numbers?

The answer would be ‘yes’, but it will take a huge amount of R&D investment. There are loads of unknowns such as:

  • Ideal mycelial culture – Ideal substrate composition
  • Bulk inoculation and incubation method development
  • Sterility and corresponding production losses
  • Product flow
  • Energy savings

In other words: a pilot plant like Ecovative’s will have to overcome huge obstacles in order to become financially independent. Most of these obstacles can be overcome, but it would take between 5 and 10 years to do so. There are few companies that are prepared to take such a financial risk.

How affordable is the solution?

Too bad for the mycelium materials, but it will most likely never beat polystyrene. Again, there are many reasons why:

  • Cost of raw materials, especially spawn
  • Cost of the production facility
  • Incubation time = rotation time of a few weeks
  • Energy needs
  • Labour intensive

 

So what is the final balance?

Mushroom materials as such is definitely a promising product. It has existed for a very long time, but only recently, people have started searching for alternative applications. One of these many applications could be packaging, but is this the most promising one? Most likely not.

 

In future, we will hear more from mushroom materials, but in which shape or form? Time will tell.

 

By Kasper Moreaux, Mycelia