July 5, 2022

Fungi-Based Packaging Alternative "Growing" in Popularity

When moving a product from one place to another it is essential to the customer and the corporation that the item makes it to its destination unscathed. For almost a hundred years EPS (expanded polystyrene) has been the one to do the job, and for the most part it does an excellent job. However, with increased concerns about the environment and how plastic affects it, companies have been searching for alternatives to the traditional EPS packaging. Ecovative Design, a company based out of Green Island, New York has created a mushroom-based packaging material that competes well with the traditional method. The material is natural, biodegradable, and takes only a week to grow and a week to decompose in the environment (IKEA, 2018). The process to grow “Ecocradle” is relatively simple and it is easy to mold into any shape desired. Agricultural byproducts are molded into the desired shape and seeded with mushroom spores that sprout mycelium (the root structure of fungi). Once the mycelium begin to sprout, they spread rapidly throughout the molded material and bind together, creating a durable packaging (IKEA, 2018). One of the first big companies to take on this new packaging material is the Swedish company IKEA which has been known before to take big strides towards being more sustainable. With IKEA being the biggest furniture company in the world, they have become the benchmark for all other retail companies in sustainability. One of the biggest benefits to Ecocradle is how it is produced. It has been shown that the production of Ecocradle in comparison to plastic production releases 90% less in carbon emissions and only uses 12% of the energy required to create the product (Wyrzykowski, 2019). With conventional packaging taking up 40% of all plastic created (Manning, 2017), a switch to a more green method is a step in the right direction. With this product competing with traditional plastic packaging it is important to also consider the cost of the product. Most plastic alternatives tend to be a great deal more expensive which is a big deterrent for most companies, however Ecocradle not only competes on its durability but also its pricing. The biggest challenge for this company is the already established presence of durable and quick plastic production. Nonetheless, IKEA has kickstarted other companies in the right direction. Companies such as Dell and a handful of smaller companies have started the transition to more sustainable packaging. With more companies starting the transition, the pressure is on for other companies to make the switch to a more sustainable future.

The growth of interest in sustainable packaging and a diversification in packing materials spells good news for the planet and for CIRT. As consumers are presented with an ever-increasing list of possible packaging materials and disposal methods (landfill, recycling, and compost!) it is even more important to make sure they understand what they are getting and its proper end-of-life management. Mushroom-based packaging should not be sent for Styrofoam recycling, just as Styrofoam packaging should not be buried as compost! These are exciting times for materials science, and CIRT is eagerly looking ahead to a future where all packaging materials can find a second (third, fourth, and fifth!) useful life after being repurposed, recycled, or composted.