Mention “mycelium”, and the first few things that come to mind are blue cheese and tempeh. Mycelium is the fungi that gives blue cheese its signature blue-green striations, and it is also the furry, velvety substance that coats the surface of these fermented soybean “cakes”.
But first – what is mycelium, exactly?
It is the vegetative part of a fungus, consisting of a network of white filaments. Think of it as extra-long fingers, if you will, which stretch as far as possible to absorb water and nutrients from its environment.
This fantastic fungi, while not of the hallucination-inducing kind, has been gaining traction over the years, opening up a world of sustainable opportunities that continue to push boundaries and evoke a sense of awe in us.
MYCELIUM IN PACKAGING
One of the most common ways mycelium’s potential is being harnessed is through biodegradable packaging. Used as a styrofoam replacement, blocks of mycelium are grown in custom shapes using 3D models for that perfect fit. It takes about a week for the mixture of mycelium and agricultural waste (like wood chips or hemp hurds) to grow, and the finished product is then dried thoroughly to disable further growth. Companies like Grown and Magical Mushroom offer certified-tested mycelium packaging that is flame-resistant, hydrophobic and compostable – all of which are the fungi’s natural qualities.
Since 2016, IKEA has been making plans to switch to mushroom-based packaging, in line with its position as a leader in corporate and environmental responsibility. Waste becomes something valuable, and resources are utilized more carefully, creating more from less for a cleaner, healthier planet. For beauty brands like Lush, Treaty, and LOLI, this makes more sense in the long run – fragile glass bottles and jars stay protected with customised mycelium packaging, without the need for excessive bubble wrap and tape.
MYCELIUM IN SOUNDPROOFING
Because of its spongy structure, mycelium is also regarded as a superior soundproofing agent. Mogu taps into the fungi’s strength with a line of 100% plastic-free acoustic panels, made from mycelium and residual textile fibres. Available in a selection of shapes and patterns, Mogu’s acoustic panels come with an easy-mount magnetic system that answer both requirements for both form and function. The velvety texture becomes a unique feature that offers softness and sound-dampening benefits, so that you can play your favourite tunes out loud without worrying about noise complaints.
The sporeless fungal strains used by Mogu in its panels are safe for humans, and the material is also tested to be free from allergy-causing substances. While originally white, these soundproofing panels are now available in an array of natural hues inspired by water, forests, earth and sand. Staying true to the concept of circular economy, Mogu also produces mycelium composite flooring, made with low-value biomasses like corn crops, rice straw, coffee grounds, discarded seaweed and clam shells.
MYCELIUM AS BACON
The meat-free alternatives of today revolve largely around ingredients like soybeans, gluten and peas. Atlast takes a different route with MyBacon (mycelium bacon), hoping to cultivate a deliciously healthy future with its solution to meat production problems like climate change and waste management, to name a few. Atlast’s parent company, Ecovative, is a mycelium-oriented biotech company.
Focusing on whole cut plant-based meats, Ecovative CEO Eben Bayer says that Atlast was born out of a simple thought experiment: “How would you make a plant-based steak?” By and large, meat substitutes are often presented in a format similar to ground meat, or pressed into larger patties. The challenge lies in growing a “steak” that has a structure akin to meat, with its muscle fibres and protein. Using strains developed for its mycelium textiles, Ecovative began creating bacon samples, but soon hit a road block – the organic structure was too tough. However, they were already on the right track, and soon expanded to Atlast with an in-house food scientist and chef to perfect the ideal “oink-less bacon”, as the brand calls it.
MYCELIUM IN FASHION
Yes, you read correctly, mushroom leather is a thing. And it’s not just a “hippie” thing, either – big brands like Hermes, Adidas and Lululemon are jumping on the mycelium bandwagon in the name of sustainability. Working with Mylo (by material solutions specialist Bolt Threads), Adidas unveiled a mushroom leather version of its iconic Stan Smith trainers earlier in April this year. Stella McCartney also debuted a two-piece set comprising a bustier and trousers made from Mylo, but both designs remain at a concept stage for now. Next year, Lululemon is set to release its first-ever Mylo collection, boasting a suede-like finish for its undyed mycelium leather yoga mat.
Another biomaterial producer sharing the spotlight is MycoWorks, whose collaboration with French luxury house Hermès made headlines. Available towards the end of 2021, the Hermès Victoria shopper bag will be made from a material known as Fine Mycelium, which uses a patented technology during growth to create an interlocking cellular structure for superior strength and durability. Following which, the material is tanned and finished in France by Hermès before it is shaped into bags.
MYCELIUM AS BURIAL VESSELS
Apart from sustainable packaging, Grown also makes mycelium lamps, benches, tables and even urns, which are available on its website and at a funeral company in the Netherlands. The urn allows its “inhabitants” to rest in peace in fertile soil: when exposed to humid conditions underground, it will fully decompose within a year.
Conventional coffins take more than ten years to break down in the earth, but with the mycelium-made Loop Living Cocoon by Bob Hendrikx, it only takes 3 years. For €1,250, you can plan ahead and give back to the earth by enriching the soil. According to Hendrikx, a researcher at the Delft University of Technology, the Living Cocoon creates a closed-loop system by simultaneously “disposing of the dead and repairing some of the damage done by humans to the earth”.
MYCELIUM IN ECO-SCIENCE
Multi-disciplinary artist Romy Snijders has a vision: in 2035, we will be able to understand what the trees are saying, thanks to the mycelial network in the earth. Using two types of tools, researches can record soundscapes that contain bio-indicators (the communication between plants) to help us improve environmental health. Presented at Dutch Design Week 2020, Snijders’ Symbiotic Futures explores the possibilities of speculative design.
According to Snijders, we are living in the Anthropocene, the current geological age where humans have a dominant impact on the climate and environment. Disconnected with nature, we contribute greatly to the planet’s destruction. Through Symbiotic Futures , humans are able to better-understand plants as living, breathing creatures, and can eventually live in symbiosis with nature, resulting in a better future.
WEEKEND WATCH: FANTASTIC FUNGI ON NETFLIX
“It’s not like a vegetable, it’s not like an animal; but it’s somewhere in between.”
With a 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes and beautifully shot by director Louie Schwartzberg, Fantastic Fungi delves into the world of mycelium, taking you up close to watch these organisms burst into life. Talking to nature advocacy non-profit Bioneers, Schwartzberg explains: “Visually what inspired me to shoot the mycelium is because it’s a network. We see the pattern in the circulatory system and nervous system of our bodies. It looks like the branches in a tree. It looks like the neurological pathways in your brain. It looks like the Internet. It looks like the galaxies in the cosmos. This networking pattern is an archetype that exists throughout the universe, and the fact that it lives underground in the shared, gorgeous, communal internet that enables trees to communicate with each other, to share nutrients, to foster ecosystems to flourish; for me that’s like nature’s operating instructions.”
As Schwartzberg says, nature’s intelligence is no longer a “new-age hippie idea”. Through the shared economy of the mycelium network, which is not based on greed, everybody flourishes and communities survive better than individuals. Indeed, the mycelium movement is here, and it’s fantastic.
Cover Credit: Arterra Picture Library / Alamy Stock Photo
Writer | Michelle Tan
Lover of all things bizarre, Michelle has a soft spot for dinosaurs, animal videos and a strong G&T. Her lifelong dream is to become an urban hermit.