Our dependence on plastics is a major environmental issue. Plastic barely degrades, and it's filling our landfills and oceans faster than we can get rid of it. But scientists and designers have come up with a viable replacement for plastic in many of its applications: fungus.
Motherboard correspondent Alejandro Tauber traveled to Utrecht University in the Netherlands to meet some of these scientists and designers. Professor and microbiologist Han Wösten explains that due to fungi's filament-style growth, it can grow within different waste materials, simultaneously decomposing and fortifying them. For example, grown within wood pulp, the result is something like cork.
In Zaandam, only a short drive away from Utrecht University, designer Eric Klarenbeek has already built sturdy furniture using this method. He uses a 3D printing filament made from potato starch, deliberately printing a porous model so the fungus can easily grow within. After it's chock full of fungus, the model is baked in a drying oven, killing the fungus to keep it from growing. The inert, dried result can support the full weight of a person.
But as designer Maurizio Montalti shows Tauber, the fungus can be grown to emulate different types of plastic. There's a more elastic, rubbery version as well as a hard, plasticlike material—both grown with the same type of fungus. So this technique could replace more than one different type of plastic.
American company Ecovative is doing just that, using fungus to replace styrofoam and plastic packaging. The benefits of this system are numerous: as well as being biodegradable, it takes up less resources and energy to produce than oil-based plastics. Ecovative founder Eben Bayer points out that plastics have their useful applications—sometimes, you don't want something to degrade. "But packaging, it's meant to be thrown away."
As Tauber says, maybe we can look forward to a day where we can just toss our packing materials in the yard, without causing environmental havoc. Let's hope that time comes sooner rather than later.