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Could mushrooms eventually replace polystyrene?

A Ukrainian startup has successfully developed a 100% biodegradable and extremely lightweight packaging alternative made from mycelium roots that fully decomposes in just a month.

If you’re familiar with my writing, by now I’m sure you’re well aware of my deep-rooted obsession with all things mycelium.

This is pretty understandable, given the amount of recent findings proving that there’s very little these fantastic fungi can’t do.

From communicating with ‘words’ (as though they weren’t magical enough) and acting as a pillar for toxic waste clean ups, to offering a new – eco-friendly – way to be buried and becoming a mainstay of modern medicineskincare, and sustainable fashion, the 21st century has seen mushrooms take centre stage.

Despite their promise, however, you probably wouldn’t think of these delicate organisms as a biodegradable alternative to polystyrene.

Well, think again, because a Ukrainian startup has successfully developed an extremely lightweight type of packaging that fully decomposes in a month and could one day replace Styrofoam altogether.

Image for This Ukrainian startup is making ‘polystyrene’ out of mushrooms

Called S.Lab and founded by biochemists Julia Bialetska and Eugene Tomilin, the company’s venture began with a simple question: what can be done about the throwaway materials we continue to use despite knowing that they’re steadily destroying our Earth?

Of the many contenders in this field (plastic, paper, and glass being the top three), polystyrene is up there with the absolute worst.

For starters, as it’s petroleum-based, it’s incredibly slow to degrade and its manufacture contributes significantly to global warming.

Not only this, but if disposed of improperly, it can leach chemicals into the environment, harming water sources and generating hazardous waste that impacts wildlife and human health.

And while it’s technically ‘recyclable,’ there are, to date, no viable methods of recycling polystyrene due to high food contamination rates and a ‘weak market’ to process it.

polystyrene made of mushroom

With this in mind, innovation is long overdue and thanks to S.Lab, a looming reality.

To create the replacement, they worked with the M.G. Kholodny Institute of Botany to grow a material that played on the strength of waste hemp fibres, which they ‘glued’ together with mycelium – the network of fungal threads that mushrooms stem from.

The result is a product that’s already completed a pilot for cosmetics brand L’Oréal, where it could be used to cushion shampoo and conditioner casings.

‘It is 100 per cent biodegradable and after usage, it can just be thrown in with the food compost or even into the soil on the yard,’ says Bialetska.

‘Our material will fully decompose in just 30 days, and there are currently no commercial alternatives like that. With the same features as polystyrene – thermal insulating, waterproof, strong, and even safer in terms of fireproofing – what’s not to like?’

Another plus is that S.Lab is light on its feet in terms of production, too.

For every kilogram of material produced, less than two litres of water is used – dramatically less than the alternative, which requires a staggering 43 litres for a single container (according to a recent study).

‘Expanded polystyrene as a packaging material is absolutely brilliant: that’s why it’s so popular, because it works,’ says Martin Wright of Positive News.

‘So if you’re going to substitute something, it has to be as good as or better. There are plenty who have tried, with varying degrees of success, some better and greener than others.’

‘But S.Lab hits both targets in terms of being as good as expanded polystyrene and a whole lot greener. You hold it and it actually feels like polystyrene!’