Fungi for the Forest II, Return of the Mycelium

Fungi for the Forest II, Return of the Mycelium

Our planet is being filled with waste. Millions of pounds of plastic packaging float in our oceans and landfills dot our landscapes. The manufacturing and misuse of petroleum products has caused sharp declines in biodiversity due to the fastest rates of climate change civilization has ever seen and massive habitat destruction due to petroleum waste in every ecosystem. Humanity uses  more than thirty-five billion barrels of oil a year. Global petroleum stores are depleting; it is estimated that at the rate at which petroleum is being used, the world oil reserves will only last 47 years as of 2021 ( It is also estimated that by the year 2025, there will be 1 ton of plastic per 3 tons of fish in the ocean, and by 2050, the plastic will outweigh the fish, if current rates of plastic deposition continue (Macarthur, 2015).  It is clear that something needs to change. There is a dire need for humanity to discontinue as many petroleum-based products as possible, and implement sustainable, biodegradable solutions. There is ample research suggesting that fungi may be able to (and may have to), fill the roles of today's petroleum fuels and plastics in the future  as biofuels, building materials, product packaging, textiles, electronics, automobiles, and home goods. Fungi may be key to humanity’s transition away from fossil fuels and petroleum products, toward a cleaner, greener, more sustainable future. 

At the heart of this body of research is one key concept: the use of lignin-heavy materials such as sawdust or plant husks and hulls, ground up and bound with a mycelial network in order to make materials in any shape or size that is fire retardant, hydrophobic, lightweight, and strong (Cerimi, et. al, 2019). One simply puts this lignin-heavy substrate and fungi in a mold to form any shape, and let the mycelium grow until it has covered the substrate.  This process can create zero-waste mycoplastic cases for electronics, panels for cars and homes, and even circuit boards, resulting in cheap and accessible product prototyping (Vasquez, Vega, 2019). With more research, fungi may create long-term circuit boards, replacing plastic ones that are so common in our landfills (Vasquez, Vega, 2019). This process can just as simply create materials for building, insulation, packaging, and water filtration.

 The creative potential for problem solving and innovation that this presents to humanity is vast. Fungus could make inventions more readily available, which may quicken technological progress exponentially.  

One of the largest problems humans must contend with in the near future is mitigating waste and cleaning up Earth’s environment in the pursuit of protecting and promoting biodiversity. A large portion of waste is plastic goods and packaging. Plastic waste generation by humans is expected to reach 2.2 billion tons a year in 2025, up from 1.3 billion tons in the year 1990 (Joshi, et. al. 2020).  Two foreseeable solutions to this waste issue are: either use less packaging for products and throw away less, or change that packaging to fully biodegradable substances that do not linger in the environment. Mycelium can be produced to possess many different valuable properties such as hydrophobicity, anti flammability, insulation, and compressive strength, which make it useful in a wide variety of settings. (Joshi, et. al).  Many studies inquire into how plastic materials may be replaced by mushroom-based alternatives for furniture, wall insulation, plastic and styrofoam packaging, leather and acoustic absorber  panels. One such study from the Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee details a method of creating “bioblocks” from mycelium and agricultural waste. As bioblocks possess excellent thermal stability, hydrophobicity, light weight, moldability and strong compressive strength, they could serve as an affordable and accessible building material for insulation and waterproofing of homes and even building of entire structures (Joshi, et. al). 

India produces a lot of greenhouse gas pollution from the burning of agricultural products. This agricultural waste could be utilized much more productively in conjunction with mushrooms to dramatically improve communities, by putting an accessible building material in the hands of everyone, as well as cutting down on pollution at the same time. Bioblocks made with oyster mushroom Pleurotus ostreatus can be used as a replacement for packaging styrofoam, and is 6-7x stronger on average (Joshi, et. al). Similarly, some companies have produced mycelial blocks which demonstrate compressive strengths superior to those of concrete (Wosten, et. al, 2018). 

There seems to be no better example of the massive potential of the innovation of mushrooms as biomaterials than the company Ecovative, which has produced mycelium based products ranging from packaging made of oyster mushroom and millet husks for Dell computers, to electrical circuit boards that utilize the mycelium with conductive metals infused in them to structure and grow the wiring pattern, to building materials for dramatic 3D art installments that are a proof of concept for mushroom-based dwellings.  (Zeller, Zocher, 2012). Ecovative held 45% of all patents in mycelial biomaterials, including mycelium home decorations, mycelial mat biofilters capable of removing excrement, oil, fuels, and pesticides out of runoff soils (Cerimi, et. al, 2019). Their packaging products have already been proven with their projects with Dell, and could revolutionize the industry simply because mycelium is cheaper to make than petroleum-based packaging products. This is because it is made from agricultural waste or plant materials, and is biodegradable, plus they are free from Volatile Organic compounds, which are common in plastics and foams and have a negative impact on human health (Cerimi, et. al, 2019). This is a giant step in the right direction for the environment. The mass uptake of these types of products over plastics, plus making oil and agriculture waste runoff filters more available, as well as providing accessible building materials all could have massive impacts on the state of Earth’s climate and the future of humanity. 

Fungi bioblocks may certainly serve as important building materials on earth in the future, and may even allow us to build structures in space. These blocks make great building materials for many reasons: materials to create them are highly accessible, and don’t need local resources brought in, they are fully recyclable, lightweight, non-flammable, insulate well, allow for designs with complex geometry, and allow for a plethora of different types of products such as bricks, leather-like textiles, and transparent films (Wosten, et. al, 2018). For these reasons, mycelium biomaterials may be invaluable in establishing space colonies, and if these biomaterial-making processes become more available, it could help make housing widely available to humans on Earth. Housing could become, in many ways, dirt cheap in the pursuit of replacing ecologically harmful materials with biodegradable ones. 

In addition to timber-based housing, animal leather and synthetic leather may also be made a thing of the past by mycelium-based materials. Leather processing is not environmentally friendly, as the production produces vast quantities of chemical sludge waste, as well as the effects of grazing animal flocks including deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, and groundwater pollutants (Jones et. al, 2020). Alternatives to leather need to have the same rugged and long lasting properties as leather. Some have been widely adapted but are often made from PVC (polyvinyl chloride) or PU (polyurethane), both petroleum-based plastic products, so they are not environmentally sustainable either. Luckily, the long, tube-shaped, interweaving structures of mycelium are an excellent medium for recreating the long interweaving fibrous structures of leather, making it perform as well if not better than bovine leather in tear, abrasion, and flex scenarios, and similarly in every category of colorfastness except UV exposure (Jones et. al, 2020). A  few companies are already making things like watch bands, shoes, and handbags with these completely biodegradable products in conjunction with corporate giants like Adidas, Lululemon, and designer brands.  Ford motor company had 19 patents on fungal-based textiles and insulators for car interiors (Cerimi, et. al, 2019).  This process is much more accessible than traditional leather making to the average person, as it requires comparatively  fewer materials. This could result in an entire industry of fungi-based textiles, specifically benefiting smaller, upstart manufacturers, due to the wide variability of the amount of mycoleather that can be created. 

Creation of materials with fungus is surprisingly easy, which makes for a powerful tool in the hands of human society. The amount of innovation, invention that these accessible materials could be responsible for, plus the amount of petroleum they could save and pollution they could prevent, could help mankind usher in the era of sustainability and living in conjunction with our ecosystem and planet, working with our ecosystems instead of against them. As pollution and waste continue to impact biodiversity, humankind will need to cut out waste and use products that don’t impact the environment so negatively in order to stop and eventually reverse our destruction of the environment.  Mushrooms are more than capable of filling the role of many petroleum-based plastics and foams used in products and packaging, as well as building materials for houses, insulation and fabrics for vehicles,  textiles for clothing, design, and goods, and even acoustic insulation for spaces like sound studios and theaters (Vasques, Vega, 2019). The fight against climate change will likely be an uphill battle, but by taking advantage of human ingenuity, empowering people to live green with accessible biodegradable materials, and working in conjunction with fungi and our ecosystem, we can eventually once again live in conjunction with nature on a verdant, thriving planet.

Works Cited

 Cerimi, K., Akkaya, K.C., Pohl, C. et al. Fungi as source for new bio-based materials: a patent review. Fungal Biol Biotechnol 6, 17 (2019). 

 Deepaksh Gulati; Mohini Sain (2006). Fungal-modification of Natural Fibers: A Novel Method of Treating Natural Fibers for Composite Reinforcement. , 14(4), 347–352.             

Joshi, K., M. K. Meher, and K. M. Poluri. 2020. Fabrication and characterization of bioblocks from agricultural waste using fungal mycelium for renewable and sustainable applications. ACS Applied Bio Materials 3:1884–1892. 

Jones, M., A. Gandia, S. John, and A. Bismarck. 2020. Leather-like material biofabrication using fungi. Nature Sustainability 4:9–16. 

Mandal, S., and R. Krishnan. 2021, June 1. Fungi: The budding source for Biomaterials. Arab Society for Fungal Conservation. 

World Economic Forum, Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey & Company, The New Plastics Economy — Rethinking the future of plastics (2016,

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