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Packaging made from mushrooms

There’s fungus among us with this new biomaterial; but how should the promotional claims be evaluated?
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New biomaterials seem to be springing up like mushrooms after the rain. In fact, now there’s a biomaterial that’s actually made with mushrooms. It’s made with the mushrooms’ filament roots, called mycelium.  Ecovative, the company that invented the biomaterial, calls it EcoCradle Mushroom Packaging, and they’ve partnered with Seal Air to expand commercial prospects.  

The process, as explained though public pronouncements, uses agricultural waste as feedstock.  The feedstock is cleaned and then inoculated with mycelium.  The mycelium grows, threading its way through the feedstock, and bonding it into a mixture.  The still-growing mixture is put into molds.  After the mixture has grown to the shapes and sizes of the molds, the growth is halted through dehydration and heat-treatment.  

EcoCradle Mushroom Packaging is marketed as an alternative to various expanded plastic foams, like those used for cushioning.  Expectedly, the promotional claims set forth the perceived advantages of the product; but as always, such claims should be objectively evaluated.

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Claim: The EcoCradle feedstock doesn’t compete with crops for humans.

That fact distinguishes EcoCradle from biomaterials that use the edible portions of crops.  Biomaterials of the latter variety generate concerns along moral and economic grounds.  It’s immoral, say some, to use crops for industrial purposes while hunger plagues parts of the globe.  Others maintain that the total costs involved in an agricultural crop are not recouped through converting it into packaging.

EcoCradle’s claimed composition can be taken at face-value; but it doesn’t necessarily follow that the biomaterial is exempt from the aforementioned criticisms.  The immorality argument is subjective; however, there are objective grounds on which to evaluate the economic argument.  And it’s this: the same resources are consumed by a crop regardless of whether use is made of its byproducts.  One can’t have corn cobs, for example, without first growing corn.

Claim: The EcoCradle process can use a variety of feedstocks. 

The feedstocks are agricultural wastes that can derive from a range of plant sources.  That flexibility in sourcing is promoted as an advantage; for example, regional feedstocks can be used instead of having to rely on a specific feedstock such as sugar cane, which might not be regional.

An evaluator of that claim should want to know the relationship between the use of different feedstocks and the resultant properties of the biomaterial.  How are performance-related requirements such as density, impact-resistance, and overall strength fulfilled by different feedstock mixtures?  The same question applies to aesthetic-related requirements such as color and texture.   

It’s a given that different feedstocks can yield different end-products; therefore, the real issue is how does one start with the end-product requirements in mind and then make sure that the chosen feedstocks fulfill them.  Ours is an era of engineered materials designed to exacting specifications, and biomaterials shouldn’t be exempt from the associated expectations.     

Claim: Growing the EcoCradle mixture is simple and efficient.

It’s claimed that the process for growing the mixture does not require water, light, or fertilizer and that the process doesn’t require the resourses consumed in a multiple-step polymerization process.  Basically, mushroom roots are mixed with plant waste, after which, nature runs its course.

Here, the evaluator should want to know more about the time required for the growing process and how it relates to productivity, economies-of-scale, leadtimes, etc.    

Claim: Substituting EcoCradle for expanded plastic foam reduces reliance on petroleum.

The claim reflects the argument that petroleum has serious inherent shortcoming that will only become more serious with time.  Petroleum is nonrenewable and someday will be depleted.  The majority of petroleum is imported.  Petroleum is subject to price increases felt throughout society.  Petroleum’s causal link to climate change—despite not being universally accepted—makes increased regulations a constant possibility. 

An evaluator need not even be convinced of the argument for reduced reliance on petroleum in order to evaluate what substituting a biomaterial entails.  Are there trade-offs to be had, and, if so, what kinds?  Are any of the trade-offs unacceptable, especially those that are related to performance?   As for performance, how is it to be measured?  Can the same tests (those promulgated by ASTM, ISTA, and ISO, for example) used for petroleum-based materials be used for the biomaterial?  And if new tests have to be devised, how reliable would attempts be to correlate their results with those of the more established tests?

Claim: EcoCradle is more environmentally-friendly than petroleum-based materials.

A favorite claim by proponents of biomaterials, it draws its sustenance from some of the issues previously discussed here. But as with any sweeping generalization, one should be wary of accepting it uncritically.

The very term, environmentally-friendly, is not self-defining and needs further clarification; in other words, environmentally-friendly according to what criteria?  Not only is it meaningful to state the specific criteria being used, it’s equally meaningful to state how the criteria are ranked and weighted.  That’s the exercise behind Life-Cycle Analysis, or as it’s alternatively known, Cradle-to-Grave analysis.  It’s not a solidly objective tool but one that can be manipulated to favor its user.  Proving that biomaterials are more environmentally-friendly as a class or even that a specific biomaterial is more environmentally-friendly remains elusive.  Even so, one should stay alert to the possibility that the biomaterial consumes more nonrenewable resources (on a life-cycle basis) than it saves.

Claim: EcoCradle is compostable.

The inference is that compostability is an advantageous characteristic in the sustainability era.  Enough said?  Not exactly.

Again, there’s the issue of definition.  Compostability is not the same as biodegradability; and a biomaterial (even that term isn’t universally defined) is not automatically compostable.  Adding to the potential confusion is the fact that even if a biomaterial is compostable, the core question is, compostable under what conditions?  Conditions existing in landfills don’t belong in the discussion because they take an eternity to achieve the effect.  Industrial composting currently operates on a skeletal infrastructure, to say the least.  And backyard composting, because of its demands on one’s time and energy, doesn’t have the scope to champion the argument.  

Claim: EcoCradle provides user-companies with a competitive advantage.

The claim is predicated on all the preceding ones and relies on the fact that companies across the industrial spectrum seek to use sustainability strategically. 

Whereas sustainability can be viewed as the pursuit of profits while protecting the planet and its people, corporations differ as to how they balance the three components.  The main objective of a corporation is to stay a corporation into perpetuity; therefore, profits are bound to be “more equal” than the other two.  Corporations are partial to what reduces costs or increases revenues and a biomaterial had better present its capabilities in one or both areas.  Regarding revenues, in particular, a corporation should not assume that its customers will pay a premium for products in “sustainable” packaging.

I find EcoCradle a fascinating new development, and I applaud the inventors for their inventiveness. As for its market-worthiness, we shall see. My only point in this column is to serve up a reminder that a thoughtful evaluation of any new development is as relevant to the supplier as it is to the user. As it turns out, mushrooms are an apt metaphor for the evaluation process because, like the fungi, it’s not all about surface appearances; there’s a lot going on beneath the surface.

Sterling Anthony is a consultant, specializing in the strategic use of marketing, logistics, and packaging.  His contact information is: 100 Renaissance Center- Box 43176; Detroit, MI 48243; 313-531-1875 office; 313-531-1972 fax; [email protected]; www.pkgconsultant.com

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