The Sustainable Packaging Company that Relies on the Fungus Among Us
by Theresa Christine Johnson on 11/28/2022 | 4 Minute Read
Mushrooms are having a bit of a moment. From the foraging boom to Colorado taking steps to legalize psilocybin (aka magic mushrooms), the power of our little fungal friends is more widely recognized. And the packaging industry is no different—mushrooms are helping push design toward something more sustainable and eco-friendly.
One such organization harnessing the magic of fungi for packaging is Magical Mushroom Company (MMC), a UK-based business that started in 2019 and wants to help solve the world’s plastic problem. The technology is patented by Ecovative Design, LLC, but when MMC founder and CEO Paul Gilligan discovered they didn’t have a license for the UK, he negotiated exclusive licenses with them for that region (and later for Europe as well). Magical Mushroom Company harvests mycelium from the root structures of fungi and combines that with agricultural waste like hemp or sawdust to make a safe, sustainable, and home-compostable alternative to plastic foams.
“The main component of mycelium is chitin,” Gilligan explained. “Chitin is a natural polymer and digests almost anything its weight, as long as it's non-protein, agricultural waste.”
Paul said that polystyrene is quite problematic in the UK—the material actually can’t be recycled there, and much of it ends up in the waste bin. If by some chance it does happen to get recycled, that’s because it goes on a journey to The Netherlands—a journey that requires energy and emits gases, harming the environment in other ways.
“We all want to leave a better legacy,” Paul said. “Everyone that works for MMC is attracted to this sustainable solution. We’re all passionate about the work, but also making a difference. Our vision and mission are to help businesses replace polystyrene and cause no harm to people or the planet.”
To create MMC's packaging, the raw materials are combined to create a sawdust-like mixture and then placed into bespoke trays. These trays go into sealed pods with strict environmental parameters to essentially recreate the kind of growth occurring in nature. After four days, the packs are removed from their molds and returned to the pods to get a nice, soft overgrowth. Finally, they’re dehydrated and sterilized with heat.
And the best part? The end of life for the packaging is at the front of mind with everything Magical Mushroom Company makes. “Unlike expanded polystyrene, which will be here for 500 years and is only used for 72 hours, this is biodegradable without any industrial conditions,” Paul said. “When it's in its solid form, our packaging will stay potentially for twenty-five years in the right environment. But as soon as you start breaking it down and exposing the strands to the enzymes in the soil, the degradation starts. We've got timelapse videos that prove it takes around 45 to 50 days. And it actually adds nitrates to the earth as well.”
While Magical Mushroom Company packaging can go in the landfill, it creates methane as it breaks down, so composting is the ideal solution. The packaging products are certified and appropriate to get used as feedstock for anaerobic digestion, and the company has tested this with positive results. With well-labeled bins throughout cities and towns, the packaging can then get repurposed to help dry out food matter.
MMC has worked on projects ranging from pack-flat cabinets with interior design company BA Components to a sustainable gift set from non-alcoholic spirit brand Seedlip to a mycelium bottle tray for organic parfumerie Ffern. Their first industrial customer was Raymarine, a major supplier of electronic equipment for marine use, and MMC is helping them replace all of their expanded polystyrene and extruded polystyrene foam. They’ve also worked with Canadian tattoo supply company Good Judy to create a mycelium tray to replace the plastic ones artists use once for ink and then throw out. This varied client base proves just how versatile mushroom packaging can be.
Oh, and lest we forget, they also worked with Adidas.
People in the industry may have a perception that mushroom packaging can’t be scaled based on their experiences with it in the past, but what MMC is doing amongst their four factories proves it can—the process just requires a kind of military precision.
“The biggest challenge was taking a process that already existed, and we had to implement it, work with it, and then redesign it,” he said. Theirs is a seven days a week kind of operation, with people working night shifts so that the process never stops. “What people have to understand is that it can be scaled now. And the more adoption, the cheaper and quicker it gets for everyone. We want to remove any cynicism people have about these alternatives because we know what a good material polystyrene is. That's why it's been so successful. But for single use, it's madness that it’s used.”
To some, it may appear that mushrooms are having their moment, but alternatives to harmful plastics are desperately needed. With the success of mycelium packaging, it’s a safe bet that this isn’t merely a trend or a fad but a sustainable option that’s here to stay.
Images courtesy of Magical Mushroom Company.