“I have come to the conclusion that much can be learned about music by devoting oneself to the mushroom” - John Cage said in "A Mycological Foray - Variations on Mushrooms". The experimental composer wasn’t the only one believing that fungi are a treasure of unsuspected revelations.

Trend forecasting agency WGSN cites mycelium as one of its key material trends for 2021 and beyond. Of all the biomaterials, mycelium seems set to become the cornerstone of many industries, from fashion to beauty as well as design and packaging.

The mushrooms that we normally eat are actually the fruiting bodies of the fungus. Through the mycelium, a fungus absorbs nutrients from its environment. Compared to a plant, mycelium is the root system, and the mushroom is the flower. Mycelium works in symbiosis with many plants and plays an important role in our ecosystems.

Fungi have an innate ability to recycle nutrients making them available to other organisms, closing energy cycle in ecosystems. Mycelium has also a great bioremediation power: it can decompose organic compounds, such as petroleum products and some pesticides. In fact, these pollutants represent organic molecules for fungi as they are built on a carbon structure.

John Cage at Stony Point, NY, 1967. Photo by William Gedney.

Mycelium, the root system of mushrooms, is the perfect biomaterial: it’s fast growing and can be scaled into macro-size structures. In the last decade, companies such as Bolt Threads, Mycelium Made, and MycoWorks have used mycelium to make products.

Backed by Stella McCartney, Lululemon and Kering, Bolt Threads, started working on Mylo, a material made from mycelium that looks and feels like animal leather, and can be used for a variety of applications. Its growth process takes around 7 to 10 days, while cattle can take 18 months to 5 years to rear.

Mylo is not only a vegan alternative to animal leather, but also emits less greenhouse gases and uses much less water and resources, using only half the volume of water needed to produce cotton. Animal leather may be considered a by-product of the meat industry, but it produces a great quantity of pollution during its curing and tanning processes.

Many synthetic leather alternatives are actually made from petroleum-based plastics. These can be very damaging to the environment and can take hundreds of years to degrade in landfills. Mycelium, on the other hand, can be composted and, if processed sustainably, can be beneficial to some environments as it degrades.

Mycelium factory. Photo credit Bolt Threads.

Mycelium, the root system of mushrooms, can be used as a packaging material in the same way as polystyrene. Lightweight, easy to mold, and to produce, mycelium foam is a mixture of agricultural waste bound with mycelium structures. This mixture is put in molds of any desired size and placed in the dark, where it grows for about a week.

The fungi are left to feed on the agricultural waste forming a network of tiny white fibers throughout the substrate. In the process, they fill all the available space and form a solid structure: mycelium foam. The foam is then removed from the mold and dried to stop the mycelium from growing and producing mushrooms or spores.

Mycelium foam can be used as packaging material or further processed to make everything from fashion to furniture products. Compared with polystyrene or polyurethane products, mycelium is actually stronger. It doesn’t have the same lifespan as polystyrene foam, which is actually good news for the environment.

Amen, a sustainable candle brand made in Grasse, provided a nice example on luxury mycelium packaging. The brand teamed up with biotech start-up Grown, which helped to create The Growing Pavilion at 2019 Dutch Design Week, to design a cylindrical box from mycelium.

The Growing Pavilion at 2019 Dutch Design Week.
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Magic Mushrooms