I consider the mushrooms on the end of my fork. Though Americans once avoided them, many now enjoy fungi as food: in stir-fry and stew, and atop pizza. But what about growing mushrooms and their kin as natural building materials or insulation, or to take us into a waste-free world? It's an eco-innovation to which we should all open our minds!
The story begins in 2006 with two Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute engineering students: Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre, who grew mushrooms under their dorm room beds. Raised on a small Vermont farm, Bayer was fascinated by the materials manufacturing potential of mycelium, the fibrous root network fungi send forth into wood and other natural materials, binding them together.
Fast-forward a few years, toss in several large eco-innovation grants, and Bayer and McIntyre are the driving force behind Ecovative Design, a Green Island, N.Y. company that manufactures mushroom-derived building insulation and packaging materials.
Oyster mushrooms like these could help compost some of the most stubborn garbage, including dirty diapers.
(Photo — Sharksbaja via Wikipedia Commons)
Their product lines - more farmed than manufactured - include Greensulate insulation and Ecocradle packaging, naturally grown replacements for traditional polystyrene products like rigid foam insulation and the Styrofoam packing blocks that protect fragile items like computers during shipping.
These fungi-based products perform just as well as their petroleum-based counterparts but are made from 100-percent-natural materials. More good news: They require 10 times less energy to produce, emit eight times less carbon dioxide in their making and are fully compostable at the end of their useful life.
Ecovative's manufacturing process utilizes local agricultural waste - such as oat hulls and buckwheat husks in America, and rice byproducts in Asia - as a feedstock for growing mushroom mycelium. The feedstock is inoculated with mycelium. Then the mix is placed inside a mold that can take any shape - say a corner block to cushion a TV during transport. In about five days, the mycelium digests the ag waste and fills the mold. The result is a custom-shaped, solid mass which is fireproof, waterproof and decomposes in one month when buried in soil. Goodbye, Styrofoam! Steelcase, Dell, 3M, and Ford are already partnering with Ecovative to develop markets for mushroom-based products.
Meanwhile, outside San Francisco, Philip Ross of Far West Fungi is experimenting with mycelium-based products for the green building industry. He is growing mushroom blocks that could serve as structural insulated panels, an eco-friendly alternative to polystyrene SIPs. Wasn't it Smurfs who lived in mushroom homes?
Mushrooms are also showing promise in waste disposal. Mycoremediation, the use of fungi to clean up waste, has already been applied to the disposal of cellulose-based agricultural by-products like straw, coffee grounds and the leftovers from making tequila.
Now Dr. Alethia Vazquez-Morillas and her colleagues at Mexico City's Autonomous Metropolitan University have tackled landfill-clogging disposable diapers. Nearly 18 billion non-biodegradable diapers - primarily made of cellulose - are sold each year in the U.S., producing a staggering amount of waste. Dr. Vazquez-Morillas has already shown that oyster mushrooms can reduce the decomposition rate of dirty diapers from 500 years to just four months. Oh, and once the mushrooms are through digesting the soiled diapers, they're delicious! How's that for an example of zero waste!?
Imagine, in the not-so-distant future, you could buy a new computer nestled in mushroom cushioning blocks, then transport it in a car equipped with mushroom-made bumpers to a home kept cozy by mushroom insulation. No fuss disposing of that excess packaging, either - simply toss it into the garden. And later, harvest some oyster mushrooms for dinner. Just pluck them from the pile of dirty diapers you've been composting. Bon appetit!
This is exactly the sort of ingenious, homegrown innovation that the U.S. needs now to bring us out of the current economic slump and move us into a green global economy.
Jeff Feldman runs GreenPath Consulting, a green building consulting firm. He and his wife Kristen Alexander live in Berkeley County, W.Va. You can comment on this column at www.blueridgepress.com