July 10, 2018
Mushrooms and fungi are fascinating things, and the edible ones are fabulously delicious! I bring this up because I read with interest a recent article in the Guardian, Magic mushrooms: how fungus could help rebuild derelict Cleveland.
Many of us know the invaluable role that fungi have in decomposition. If we did not have fungi, we’d likely be buried in dead organic matter everywhere! Fungi can be single-celled organisms, such as yeast, or multi-celled organisms like mushrooms. Strands of cells called “hyphae” (collectively called a mycelium—think mushroom “roots”) make up these multi-cell fungi. Indeed, due to its ubiquitous nature, fungi comprise a hefty share of the biomass in virtually all ecosystems.
These decomposers are found in terrestrial, marine and freshwater environments. Fungi are essential to the decomposition (and composting) process, as they break down tough organic matter, such as cellulose and lignin, which invertebrates cannot. Fungi convert organic matter into forms that other decomposers and plants can consume.
Then there’s Mushroom® Packaging. Founded in Green Island, New York by Ecovative Design, the packaging products are grown using agricultural waste and mycelium. The company works with regional farmers to source non-food agricultural waste. The materials are crushed, sorted, and cleaned and then mycelium is added to the mix. This serves to bind the agricultural waste together. After a few days of growth, the resulting Mushroom® Products are ready for use.
Mushroom® Packaging is fully compostable, even in home composting systems. It can be custom designed for use as packaging for a wide range of products. It’s not derived from petroleum or other nonrenewable resources. And, it is made in the USA.
So, can the versatile mycelium be used to recycle old buildings into new ones?
In many urban areas, abandoned buildings abound. In Cleveland, Ohio, for example, there are more than 7,000 abandoned or condemned homes around the city. These abandoned structures are expensive to demolish, pose safety and public health issues, and are a visual reminder of blight that contributes to ongoing economic instability in lower income neighborhoods. Demolition also results in the loss of resources that went into these structures, and sends high volumes of waste to landfills.
His vision, termed “biocycler”, involves adding bacteria, fungi, and plants as “cultured bio-binders” (think natural glue or cement) to construction waste. The process, similar to Mushroom® Packaging, results in new building materials, including wood framing, sheathing, bricks, insulation, and wallboard.
If you think of demolition “waste” as urban raw materials, “biocycling” can potentially become a transformative process to help cities become more sustainable. “Mycotecture,” or architecture using mushrooms and fungi, may become the new building trend!
While experimental, Redhouse Studio has started a biocycling prototype project in Cleveland. The firm is renovating a three-story 19th-century building into a boutique hotel. The deconstructed debris will be “recycled” onsite, using the biocycler process to construct building blocks to be used for a new structure.
Beyond saving resources and converting demolition wastes into value added products, biocycling can reduce carbon emissions that result from standard construction projects.
Obviously, there are many hurdles to surmount before biocycling becomes scalable and mainstream. The building industry for one. Testing and creating models to prove that the biocycler products are safe, durable, and can be constructed to meet building codes, will be a long process.
Perhaps the most immediate role that biocycling could play is building bioshelters for people displaced during a natural disaster. The process can both serve to reduce the vast amounts of building wastes that often result from natural disasters, while also replacing destroyed homes and structures with new ones.
By Athena Lee Bradley