We’ve long been dependent on styrofoam for packaging, but that lightweight protective material is virtually impossible to decompose.
So it makes sense that scientists are working on–or rather, growing–an alternative. Styrofoam packaging may soon be replaced by fungi. Yes, that’s mushrooms, but not the kind you eat.
Mycelium, the “roots” of fungi, could make up the packaging materials of the future — providing an entirely biodegradable alternative to environmentally problematic styrofoam.
Scientists at Union College, in New York, are joining forces with Ecovative Design to develop this new type of packaging, which could replace what are known as expanded plastics — made from petrochemicals. Ecovative’s alternative brings together byproducts from agricultural processes, like cotton gin waste, rice seed hulls, buckwheat, oats, hemp, and other plant materials. These are joined together by growing fungal mycelia around them. See a video of the process here.
The team of scientists is experimenting with different strains of fungi that could grow the packaging in as little as five days.
“We manipulate one strain in various ways to see if we can make versions of the fungus to suit certain applications the company has in mind,” said Steve Horton, a biologist at Union College.
No word yet on when we may start seeing fungi protecting our new appliances, but once the process can be scaled, it would be a promising way to curb the use of styrofoam.
Now, if only those take-out coffee cups could be made of fungi as well.