A few semesters ago, middle school science teachers handed out bags of dehydrated mushroom powder to their students and asked them to do something a little out of the ordinary: Make cell phone cases.
The lesson was part of a curriculum designed by Beyond Benign, a Massachusetts-based non-profit that empowers teachers to utilize sustainable science resources and teach about green chemistry. The module on mycelium fungus encourages students to learn about engineering, biodegradable materials and plastic alternatives.
For the module, students mix the Grow.bio Grow It Yourself (GIY) mushroom material with flour and water so that the mycelium (the root-like section of the mushroom) grows.
“This is a totally appropriate time to let out a maniacal laugh and exclaim ‘It’s alive!’” encourages the GIY manual. After more flour is added, students shape the fibrous mixture into a mold. The mycelium grows for several days, acting as a binding agent to create a durable structure. Once the material turns white, students dry out the cases, removing any moisture that will enable the fungus to keep growing. The result is a fully formed cell phone case ready for use.
In addition to engineering, students participating in the lesson discuss the long lifecycle of plastic and the need for green chemistry inspired alternatives, says Kate Anderson, the director of K-12 Education at Beyond Benign.
Getting students to consider the environmental challenges plastics pose is important for the health of the planet. According to a 2017 study published in Science Advances, only nine percent of all plastics ever made have been recycled. A 2018 article in National Geographic states that an estimated 18 billion pounds of plastic waste make their way into the ocean every year. A report released in 2019, Plastics and Health: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet, declares that plastics pose a threat to health—including a higher risk of cancer and neurotoxicity—at every stage of the plastics lifecycle.
A handful of companies like Grow.bio’s parent corporation Ecovative offer green alternatives for packaging and products. IKEA UK recently announced that the company would replace standard Styrofoam containers with Ecovative’s mycelium-based Ecocradle packaging.
While Styrofoam is estimated to take thousands of years to decompose, Ecovative’s mycelium packaging grows under controlled conditions in a week and decomposes in the same amount of time. As long as the mycelium isn’t immersed in water or repeatedly saturated, the material should maintain its shape and structure.
Maurizio Montalti, co-founder of the Amsterdam design studio Officina Corpuscoli, says the material shouldn’t just be considered a plastic or Styrofoam replacement. “It’s important to consider mycelium-based materials as a totally new category with its own features, opportunities and limitations, too,” says Montalti. “There are many different applications they can be utilized for.”
Montalti, who started working with mycelium during his graduate studies, is also co-founder of Mogu, a design company that develops and produces mycelium-based products such as acoustic wall panels. Next year they will release flooring products.
Currently, the demand for Mogu’s products seems to be greater than the capacity. The company is expanding to accommodate the volume of requests. “Expansion is not for the sake of growth itself, but to really start making a difference, counteracting the massive flow of synthetics utilized in everyday products and applications. To achieve that, scale is fundamental,” says Montalti.
Biofabrication, as the field is called, disrupts many traditional approaches to production. Montalti thinks that it’s “absolutely fundamental that designers take responsibility for what they make and consider the materiality of everyday objects.” Everyone, he adds, consumers, designers, industry, and policy makers, needs to share responsibility for embracing an ecologically responsible production model.
“We are just at the very early stages of the field,” says Montalti. “There is so much more that can and must be done.” Having students build cell phone cases out of mycelium may just be the first step to changing the way mushrooms are viewed and used for generations to come.
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