Fungi – the Sustainable Alternative to Plastic & Wood

Contrary to common belief, fungi are extremely complex, versatile organisms. As a matter of fact, mycelium develops faster than any other living tissue and can potentially outlive most species on the planet. Mushrooms have long been known for their nutritional and medicinal value but, just like mycelium stays hidden underground, its true potential also remains unseen. We have only begun to tap into them. Yet, although the technology is still largely undeveloped, experts like Phil Ross have already succeeded in replacing plastic and wood furniture with fungi-based materials.

Ross is a part of a small but growing movement, determined to introduce fungi as an alternative to various building materials. He is the co-founder of Mycoworks, a company that offers furniture made from mushrooms and recycled waste. The mycelium composites developed by Ross are 100% organic, infinitely sustainable and free of harmful toxins. Plus, unlike the case with wood, rubber and various plastics commonly used to manufacture furniture, working with mushroom-based materials implies no carbon footprint, whatsoever. The Mycoworks furniture is so natural that it’s actually edible!

The production process is mostly conducted by Ganoderma lucidum, the fungi Ross uses due to its versatility as well as the fact that it grows well at room temperature. He can transform any semi-organic by-products, such as sawdust or agricultural waste into furniture using this mushroom culture. Ross simply adds just a small piece of mycelium and, within 2-3 weeks, the base material becomes fully covered in Ganoderma fungus.

Next, the growing culture is enclosed in a mold, which is eventually overfilled with mycelium, forming any desired shape. After that, Ross opens up the mold and hardens his structure in the same way wood is traditionally hardened – by evenly heating it in an oven at a specific temperature. The heat kills the mushroom and denatures any proteins that were produced by it. For his stools and chairs, Ross uses wooden legs for structural support, though it’s just a long-term safety precaution – the material could be made tougher than hardwood with the use of certain nutrients and additives.

Of course, fungi are far from being a mainstream building material. Even Ross admits that there’s still a whole lot to learn about the production process, not to mention the science behind it. At this stage, he compares experimenting with cultures to “alien surgery”. Nevertheless, the inventor can already develop a suitable alternative to wood on a consistent basis. His finished product is a tough material that visually resembles spotted brown marble, yet is lightweight and feels similar to construction paper.

All of that being said, there’s still the matter of economics. The Environmental Building Agency estimated that, even if mass-production was utilized, mushroom materials would cost about 40% more than traditional ones. For now, only one retailer sells Ross’ furniture directly to the public. The price for a stool is $300, while a chair will cost you a whopping $3,000. Basically, it isn’t competitive enough to enter the market just yet.

Still, there is definitely light at the end of the tunnel. Most notably, mushrooms have one huge advantage over all other construction materials out there – they are held together naturally. There is no need for toxic resins or glues. And the best part is that this saves a lot of money on overhead costs. Besides avoiding the cost of carcinogenic holding agents, investors can eliminate the need for supplying hazmat suits to their contractors. Plus, there’s no related training required, which saves both time and money.

Perhaps the most important factor driving the mushroom movement forward is the environmental aspect. Is our society aware enough to support sustainable materials? With thirteen out of fourteen available $300 stools sold at a single retail location, the answer is a resounding yes. Think about it – these aren’t luxury chairs. As a matter of fact, there is absolutely no cushioning and the surface isn’t even. The stools were clearly bought in support of Ross’ effort and his goals.

Sceptics may say that there are better ways to support our environment for $300 then buying a stool but they don’t consider long-term impact. Displaying furniture made of fungi is symbolic. It’s a call to action, which may be just what the movement needs to boom. Sure, today it’s a long-shot. But each year unsustainable materials become more expensive, while each new piece of research (and every single mushroom stool) raises more awareness for the cause. A few years from now, fungi might be the most sound option for manufacturers worldwide.

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