Ikea Looks Into Replacing Styrofoam With Biodegradable Mushroom Packaging

MINNEAPOLIS — Ikea shoppers may soon encounter mushrooms on trips to the big box store, but the fungi won’t be served on a plate with Swedish meatballs.

“We are looking for innovative alternatives to materials, such as replacing our polystyrene packaging with mycelium — fungi packaging,” Joanna Yarrow, Ikea’s head of sustainability in the United Kingdom, told The Telegraph on Feb. 24.

Mycelium are the branched fibers that act like the roots of a fungus, absorbing nutrients and continuing to grow even when an actual mushroom isn’t present on the soil. Ecovative, a company based in Green Island, New York, has developed a technique to encourage mycelium to grow around agricultural waste material, like corn husks, to form sturdy, biodegradable packaging that can be made into almost any shape.

By contrast, polystyrene, or styrofoam, is made from fossil fuels and is often difficult or impossible to recycle. A 2011 fact sheet from Clean Water Action claims that the U.S. produced 13 billion pounds of polystyrene in 2006. Additionally, exposure to styrene, a key chemical in the packaging, is both neurotoxic and carcinogenic. The chemical is so prevalent, that research shows traces of it can be found almost universally in human bodies.

An Ikea spokesperson told The Telegraph that the company is experimenting with Ecovative packaging as part of a company-wide effort to be more environmentally sustainable, but isn’t yet using it in production. “We always look for new and innovative processes and sustainable materials that can contribute to our commitment,” the spokesperson said.

Other efforts to be more environmentally friendly include offering vegetarian meatballs in the diners found in IKEA stores and a pilot program in Belgium that encourages customers to trade in old furniture for resale.

Ecovative’s mushroom-based packaging was developed by the company’s founder and designer, Eben Bayer. He argues that mycelium can do more than just replace styrofoam. In a July 2010 TED Talk, he explained:

“[B]y using mycelium as a glue, you can mold things just like you do in the plastic industry, and you can create materials with many different properties, materials that are insulating, fire-resistant, moisture-resistant, vapor-resistant — materials that can absorb impacts, that can absorb acoustical impacts. But these materials are grown from agricultural byproducts, not petroleum. And because they’re made of natural materials, they are 100 percent compostable in your own backyard.”

Rather than manufacturing packaging from fossil fuels and using more resources to ship that packaging around the world, Bayer said it should be manufactured from available materials:

“Our vision is local manufacturing, like the local food movement, for production. So we’ve created formulations for all around the world using regional byproducts. If you’re in China, you might use a rice husk or a cottonseed hull. If you’re in Northern Europe or North America, you can use things like buckwheat husks or oat hulls.”

He concluded that humans must break free of addiction to fossil fuels and their unsustainable byproducts. “[W]hile, today, we can practically guarantee that yesterday’s packaging is going to be here in 10,000 years, what I want to guarantee is that in 10,000 years, our descendants, our children’s children, will be living happily and in harmony with a healthy Earth.”

Watch “Eben Bayer: Are mushrooms the new plastic?” from TED:

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