Fungi are all around you. They’re the mushrooms on your pizza, the blue veins in your Roquefort, the penicillin saving human lives and the pesticides keeping insects away from crops. Fungi are natural recyclers: they break down plastics, clean up oil spills and, when a volcano erupts, fungi are the first organisms on the scene to begin the process of regenerating life.
If you’re not sold on fungi’s role in the life cycle, picture a forest with no ability to compost the plants and animals who live and die there. And did you know that without fungi, we’d still be living in the ocean? Fungi were responsible for breaking Earth’s rocky surfaces into soil, allowing roots to spread from sea to land and transform life as we know it today. The third of Earth’s six living kingdoms is a vital one, but it turns out we can use it for a number of less obviously critical purposes as well.
Over the past several years, headlines proclaiming fungi’s true potential have made the news, from discoveries of a mushroom’s ability to act as a leather substitute to our ability to grow construction materials out of mycelium – the root-like structures of fungi resembling white thread which create networks to break down matter. Reading the headlines, you wouldn’t be wrong to assume mushrooms and yeast – did you know yeast is a single-celled fungus? – are untapped resources here to save the world, and based on current research, it’s safe to say they could, at the very least, provide some major assistance.
Dolce & shiitake
The past decade has seen the rise of alternative organic ‘leathers’. A term previously reserved for animal skins, it turns out leather can be made out of just about any material with a meaty flesh. We’re talking cactuses, pineapples, coconuts and, of course, fungi.
There are a couple of different ways to make mushroom ‘leather’. The first is the natural way: harvesting tinder fungus, a fungus growing on trees with a hard exterior – which humans have been using as tinder to help start fires since 3000BC – and soft innards, and stretching out its inner layers to create a fabric. This is what Nina Fabert, founder of Berlin’s mushroom-made accessory company ZVNDER, has been doing since 2015.
“I make the material from the part of the mushroom called the trama layer. I cut the mushroom apart to access it. When it’s damp, you can pull it like chewing gum. It’s an art, because you have to get an even surface area and also one that’s big enough to get creative with.”
Fabert uses her hand-crafted material to sew wallets, hats and quilts, but this niche method of manufacturing is only able to offer so much in the way of quantity and consistency. Conditions must be propitious for the growth of her source material, farmed in Transylvania. Although it’s grown by a provider contracted to supply ZVNDER, availability is limited by natural and ethical factors.
“The mushrooms I use are picked directly from the tree by families who produce it for me, but I’m dependent on the environment and it’s unlikely this material could be mass produced. Would we want it to be mass produced? The forest would be damaged if we were constantly going in and picking the mushrooms.”
With the sizes, shapes and colours of Fabert’s fully-compostable fabric varying with each and every mushroom, material inconsistencies make it unsuitable for large-scale manufacturers to use in the mainstream market. Fortunately, lab grown mushroom ‘leather’ is also available and it’s about to hit the market in a big way.
Last year, Forbes declared that “mushroom-based leather is now a scalable alternative to animal leathers, poised for market disruption”, signalling the material’s potential to compete with the $400 billion animal leather market. Prompting the claim was the advent of Fine Mycelium, a lab-grown product engineered by Californian manufacturing company MycoWorks. Similar to other mycelium-grown leathers such as Mylo, Fine Mycelium is grown in trays and can be adjusted in terms of shape, size and colour. Hermès partnered with the brand last year and recently announced they’ll be scaling up their investment after confirming the material’s reliability. High-street brands like Adidas are also experimenting with mushroom-based leather: they’ve created a mycelium version of their classic Stan Smith sneaker. Could mushroom leather jackets from Zara become available in the near future? It’s possible.
“There’s definitely a huge market for it,” says Fabert, who is interested in adding lab grown mycelium to ZVNDER’s range of source material. “We’d like to be able to breed in a laboratory. We want to be using new, innovative materials in parallel with traditional ones.”
When it comes to environmental impact, mushroom-based leather versus its animal counterpart is a no-brainer. Mycelium needs just a couple of weeks to grow compared with animal leather’s one to two years, not to mention a fraction of the water. Mushroom leather also skips the tanning process required to create animal leathers, a method which requires harmful chemicals and creates toxic fumes. A switch to mushroom leather will certainly stop the tanning process, but it doesn’t necessarily solve the environmental and ethical issue of cows being raised for slaughter.
“This depends more on the food industry than on the leather industry, in my opinion,” says Fabert. “Leather is ultimately produced in the wake of meat being processed. In a way, it’s good everything is being used, throwing away all the skin would be stupid.”
In short, leather fans switching to mushroom and mycelium-based products will be doing their part in saving the environment from tanning processes, but they won’t be saving the cows unless they’re willing to leave meat behind as well. But hey, with animal agriculture accounting for an estimated 14.5 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, maybe that wouldn’t be the worst idea.
In 2014, MoMA unveiled a three-month outdoor installation in its PS1 courtyard. Known as Hy-Fi, the 13-metre freestanding structure was composed of 10,000 white mycelium bricks which withstood three months of rain and shine during its summer tenure at the museum. If you’re interested in seeing Hy-Fi with your own eyes, you can’t: the once-dominating tower has now decomposed fully back into the ground.
“Fungi are super sustainable in terms of building products,” says Sven Pfeiffer, namesake and founder of the Berlin-based studio for alternative architecture methods Studio Sven Pfeiffer. “It’s an all-natural material that can decompose completely and not leave a trace. It stores carbon dioxide as well.”
Labs are using mycelium to grow bricks, a process that takes raw, compostable material for mycelium to break down and surround until it has formed something solid.
In terms of end product, the durability can’t match that of concrete, so if you’re wondering whether fungi skyscrapers are the future of architecture, the answer is: probably not. At least, not when it comes to a building’s exterior.
“In terms of load bearing, concrete is a lot stronger than fungi. There are ways to make it stronger like compressing and reinforcing, but fungi as a material is quite porous,” says Pfeiffer, who believes we should be playing on fungi’s strengths and using them to our advantage. “The question should be: what are we replacing and can we replace it with something that’s better?”
The answer to this question is located in a building’s interior: specifically, its petroleum-based insulation. Most of the insulation packed between the walls of today’s homes, shops and offices is derived from oil and manufactured into that pink and yellow fluffy stuff we’re used to seeing during home renovations, but it turns out fungi can do a better job at a fraction of the environmental cost.
More eco-friendly than its oil version, mycelium insulation is also a more effective material for the job. Trapping more heat than standard petroleum-based insulation, mycelium is a non-toxic material that also makes for a more energy-efficient house. Oh, and it’s fireproof and carbon-negative. The product is available now, but it will be some time before it’s a viable alternative to what’s used today.
“The price is an issue. Similar to concrete, which costs €80-100 per cubic metre, petroleum-based insulation is much cheaper. It’s why recycled concrete has such a hard time on the market. Mushroom materials for insulation will face the same challenge in the beginning, so it needs to have political support with legislation and funding.”
In addition, Pfeiffer says more research is required before the material is ready for commercial use and that new infrastructure is needed to take on the agricultural side of manufacturing insulation with fungi. “I would give it 10 years, but that’s a rough guess. As we get closer to certain thresholds in terms of global warming, the policies on making new buildings will also be much more rigid. Then there’s the current political situation which shows the resources we’re relying on like petroleum might not always be there.”
With current climate goals lacking urgency, the likelihood of getting the legislation we need in time to stop the irreversible effects of global warming looks less promising by the hour. Biodegradable infrastructure is a step in the right direction, but the action required to get it to the mainstream market is lacking. The jury is still out on whether humans will make it through the climate disaster, but whatever the outcome, fungi, as always, will be there to clean up the mess.
Magic mushrooms: How else can fungi help us?
FUEL: Single-celled fungi have long been used as a means to convert crops into certain biofuels, but a recent discovery by the University of Singapore is bringing fungi-based biofuels to the next level. The university found that bacteria produced from growing mushrooms can convert non-food items like wood and grass into biobutanol, a fuel that can substitute petroleum in cars. Setting the conditions for the bacteria to form is tricky and scientists are still figuring out how to produce the microbes on a large scale. The reward if they succeed? A cheap biofuel that can grow in wasteland areas rather than farmland and a product compatible with existing cars and infrastructure.
PACKAGING: Could your future Amazon purchases come packaged in mycelium? Mushroom-based packaging has been around for a while and big brands are starting to catch on. Swedish furniture giant Ikea announced it would be switching to mushroom-based packaging materials in 2016 and officially made the transition in 2020. Fully compostable, mushroom-based packaging breaks down in 45 days by ripping it into pieces and disposing of it in any composting environment, even your garden! Like Fine Mycelium ‘leather’ and mycelium insulating materials, mushroom packaging can be customised by shape and size, meaning companies can mould it around specific products to ship securely.
CLEANING: Mushrooms have been used to clean up oil spills in the Amazon for years. The legacy of Texaco’s 26-year drilling of the region left inhabitants with depleted resources and a mess of spillage, referred to by local communities as piscinas, aka swimming pools, of oil. Deploying mushrooms to clear the mess, these fungi have been successfully working away at dealing with the contamination for years, breaking down the oil’s molecules and converting it into nutrients that feed back into the ecosystem. The practice is cheaper and more environmentally friendly than the current corporate method
of removing contaminated soil and incinerating it. Unfortunately, it’s also a much slower process that can’t meet deadline regulations governing oil spill clean-ups. It’s unlikely we’ll see fungi deployed by companies to clean spilled oil, but its service is invaluable at the local level.