The root of sustainable solutions?
Even if you're not a sustainability advocate, you've probably heard of mycelium. It's one of those climate terms, like 'Anthropocene', that has transcended the climate vertical to broader usage. Like many climate investors, mycelium has 'peaked' our interest for its most recent use case - Alternative Materials. We've taken a close look at mycelium, and we're not yet convinced that it will be the wonder material that can replace toxic, non biodegradable materials like plastics. Before we dive into the why, we first need to understand the what and the how.
What is mycelium? Mycelium is the vegetative part of a fungus, consisting of a network of fine white filaments (called hyphae). In simple words, it is the root of a mushroom. Mycelium is mainly composed of natural polymers such as chitin, cellulose, proteins, etc., making it perfect for utilization in food, nutraceuticals, pharmaceuticals, pesticides, alternate protein, and importantly, as an alternative to plastics.
How do you convert mycelium to packaging? Feed, grow, kill. Feed the mushroom spores a diet of paddy straws or agriculture waste, and deposit them into a nutrient-rich medium, like a petri dish with nutrients in it (this is referred to as the 'substrate'). This should then be deposited onto a mold that is crafted to the desired shape of the package. Watch as the mycelium consumes the waste and grows around the mold. Once it reaches the desired size, kill the mycelium spores by passing it through high temperatures. And there you have freshly cooked, nature-based mushroom packaging in just 4-7 days. Similarly, for mushroom-based leather alternatives, replace the mold with a few rollers and processors.
Sounds great. So what's wrong with this nature-based solution?
We've broken down our thought process using the following assessment criteria, in order of priority:
Functional Efficiency: Is mycelium able to provide all the benefits of the materials it is currently replacing?
Resource Intensity: Compared to the materials being replaced, how resource efficient is the manufacturing process?
Scalability: Would mycelium eventually be able to replace a significant amount of the current material being used?
There's little use doing general research without thinking about specific use-cases, so we focused on two key industries - Fashion and Packaging - where mushroom-based materials are already being used. After diving deep into each vertical, we found that our answers ranged from "not yet" to "no" for each of the three assessment criteria that we had devised. Mushroom-based materials have generated a well-deserved hype given their advantages at a first glance, but from many perspectives, the success of the material has yet to be determined. It is fair to assume that the issues associated with the material would be eradicated over time as our technology progresses, but for now, here's our views on why large-scale commercial adoption may be challenging.
Mushroom-based alternative for the fashion industry:
Mushroom-based textile startups are focusing on replacing leather - used in clothing and accessories - which comes with its own series of environmental and ethical challenges. From a functional efficiency standpoint, leather still wins from a durability of material, cost of material and adoption of material perspective. Even if we discount the latter two as functions of a more built out and tenured ecosystem (the leather industry has been around for centuries), the jury is still out on whether mushroom-based textiles can compete with leather on durability. While present wear and durability tests look promising, brands will need to see further studies before determining whether it can be a genuine addition to their portfolio. In addition, even with further R&D and scale, adoption remains a critical challenge due to consumers' perceived luxury value of natural leather. While mushroom-based textiles are currently limited to a niche eco-conscious sector in the luxury market, with brands like Hermès, Stella McCartney, Adidas and lululemon announcing partnerships with such startups, we'll start to see a shift.
Mushroom alternatives win by a huge margin compared to animal-based alternatives. As per some estimates, compared to animal-based leather, mushroom-based material uses 70% less water, 17% less energy, and emits 68% lower GHG emissions. However, there are other alternatives such as pineapple, cactus or bacterial cellulose-based leather alternatives which might have a lower resource intensity than even mushroom-based alternatives. The LCAs (lifecycle analysis) for these alternatives are yet to be determined.
Based on conversations with existing players, the infrastructure to manufacture mushroom-based material can be incorporated into the existing leather tanneries. However, the scalability of the material itself depends on the progress current early stage startups make with regards to the material quality, cost and durability.
Mushroom-based alternative for the packaging industry:
Mushroom-based packaging startups are aiming to replace the highly polluting polystyrene, or more commonly known as 'styrofoam', packaging. While this packaging is recyclable, the recycling process is highly costly and inefficient - resulting in the material being dumped in landfills where it takes several years to decompose into harmful microplastics. As we know, styrofoam is used to package several consumer goods during transportation and in the food takeaway industry. While mushroom packaging is beginning to convince the high value consumer product businesses about its packaging benefits, it has no solution to offer the restaurant industry yet. Additionally, it does not have the same lifespan as polystyrene foam, which is good for the environment but not necessarily good if you’re looking for something to last for years. This is changing with new research but there is some time before these features are perfected.
One unit of mushroom packaging would take around 4-7 days to be manufactured resulting in high space usage. During the growth process, the temperature needs to be maintained to 25 degree celsius and at the end of the process, the packaging has to be passed through high temperatures (upto 100 degree celsius) to inhibit the growth of the mycelium. Manufacturing one unit of packaging certainly sounds resource intensive. But the fact that it is not petroleum based and biodegrades without harming the environment, makes up for the effort. However, we have not yet found a compelling study that analyzes the lifecycle benefits of mushroom based packaging vs styrofoam.
Based on the discussion so far, this answer seems pretty straightforward. Mushroom based packaging is not the easiest to scale considering the conditions of growth, number of days it takes and the amount of space it requires. Additionally, brands have switched to replacing styrofoam with cardboard packaging. In order to convince the industry to adopt mushroom based packaging, startups will need to do a little more than just claiming the benefits of biodegradability for the environment and compliance against single use plastic laws & standards.
While we have been extremely critical of the material, we understand that this is just the beginning. We hope to see progress in the technology since if successful, this poses huge benefits for the environment. If you are a startup working in this space or have any knowledge resources that might help us understand the technology better, or just someone who thinks otherwise about the progress of the mushroom based alternatives, feel free to reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org. Till then, we are off to enjoy our bowl of mushroom soup!
Partner's Note: At Peak, we like separating the signal from the noise. The term mycelium has popped up again and again over the last 9-12 months. This stems from plastics becoming a much more important topic in recent times, with the known consequences associated with single-use plastics. With that in mind, we have started looking at nature-based solutions. Mycelium is one of those nature-based solutions. From multiple perspectives, at least today, it doesn't seem like mycelium can replace plastic en masse. But we hold out for innovations in mycelium, or other types of nature-based solutions, such as algae-based ones, to see whether they can be. I guess the broader point is this - single-use plastics are a massive, massive problem. And it's tough to see just one material uprooting it (quite literally).