An Analysis of Myco-materials
and Polystyrene Foams
By Tess Burzynski
Polystyrene foam, better known to society as Styrofoam, is a widely used hydrocarbon material. This non-biodegradable synthetic material is widely used in the manufacturing of packaging materials. It is produced in three different forms: general purpose polystyrene (GPPS), high impact polystyrene (HIP), and expandable polystyrene (EPS).  The processes in creating these products are energy intensive and rely greatly on petroleum.  As environmental issues arise due to increased production of oil-based products, natural compounds of biological matter are being put to the test for biotechnological use. Mycological fungi, a renewable biomaterial, are competitive in replacing plastic foams. It allows for low cost production, lack of oil feed-stock usage, and carbon-neutral or carbon-negative products. Mycological fungi are on the rise among biomaterials as they are fast growing, non-toxic, and sustainable. Displacing synthetic materials is a step towards greener, energy efficient production and sustainable products.
As previously stated, polystyrene products are energy intensive and rely heavily on petroleum. The production of one cubic foot of EPS contains the energy of 1.5 liters of petroleum.  EPS has a short life span, being used and discarded within minutes to hours, adding significantly to solid waste disposal; because this material takes thousands of years to decompose, it consumes roughly 25% of space in our landfills. In the United States, 855,112 metric tons of polystyrene are produced every year and the recycling rates of these materials are less than 2% due to cost inefficiency.  It is a popular material for shipments as it provides superb insulation and protection at a low cost; however, it posts harmful health and environmental impediments, increasing the need for alternative constituents.
Mushroom material is a natural, sustainable and competitive alternative to these petroleum based products. Composed of agricultural waste and mycelium, it is 100% compostable. Mycelium is the filamentous root-like tissue of a mushroom. This cellular, vegetative, carbon-based matter grows as an underground mass in nature.  Mycelium feed off of decaying bio-materials such as wood, leaf matter, or in this case, agricultural wastes such as cotton carpel, corn stalks, buckwheat husks or oat hulls.  Once the chosen feedstock is cleaned and sterilized using high pressurized steam, it is inoculated with a specific species of mushroom.  After being packed into a mold, it will grow indoors over the next five days in the dark, at room temperature without any external energy inputs.  To stop the growing process the material is dehydrated and heat treated at high temperatures. The desired mold is finalized and ran through rigorous tests to ensure biological quality control.  The material, when compared to polystyrene foams, is competitive with average density and strength. 
In conclusion to this comprised data, mycelium material is a competitive alternative to polystyrene foams. It offers a non-toxic manufacturing process, lower manufacturing costs, carbon neutrality, and is 100% biodegradable and sustainable. These materials can be used to replace synthetic packaging materials, insulation, acoustical tiles, and much more.  It is an overall, breakthrough material with benefits to the environment and future generations.
Myco-material and polystyrene both use energy and release CO2 during their production process. Myco-material uses agricultural wastes while polystyrene uses petrochemical extraction. To produce 1 m^3 of polystyrene, 4,667 megajoules (MJ) of energy are used and 462 kg of CO2 is released into the atmosphere. On the other hand, the production of 1 m^3 of Myco-material uses 652 MJ and releases 31 kg of CO2.
After analyzing and comparing Polystyrene, a hydrocarbon material, and Myco-material, an up and coming biomaterial created from mushrooms, much remains unknown. Because this mycelium based material has only been on the rise since 2007, there are gaps in the data. Scientists and Ecovative entrepreneurs are still working on bettering the project and forming a complete Life Cycle Assessment. It is, however, known that this material is already comparable and competitive where it stands now to Polystyrene products.
There are distinctions that can indemnify the stability of this mycelium product over synthetic materials. These grown materials contain no toxic chemicals whereas Polystyrene is composed of harmful hydrocarbons and other chemicals suspected to be carcinogens by the US government.  The raw resources consumed for each product vary greatly. Many benefits are gained by using mycelium based products including, formaldehyde free production and yields, USA made material, customizable, environmentally safe, fire resistant, VOC free, and 100% sustainable and compostable. The mushroom packaging has already been adopted by major companies including Steelcase Inc. and Dell to securely ship heavy weight furniture and computers.  Ecovative design, home of the mushroom packaging material, has also been working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to incorporate this material into buoy platforms. Buoy platforms used to detect early warnings of tsunamis to coastal communities. 
Polystyrene uses a vast amount of energy for its production process. Compared to Myco-material production, the difference is roughly 4,042 MJ of energy per year. Polystyrene also releases about 15 times more CO2 during its production process than that of myco-material production. Polystyrene poses threats on oceanic environments and wildlife habitats, increasing 40% in the last decade. Due to the light weight density of these Polystyrene materials, they are easily blown from landfills and reside in oceanic and other habitats.  They take up roughly 75% of marine litter where they are often consumed by wildlife. 
Overall, this innovative mycelium based product is paving the way to mitigate health and environmental issues caused by Styrofoam. Although there is still much work to be done to fully equate the two materials, mycological natural composites are shown to have the potential for replacing Polystyrene foams. A complete life cycle assessment of the fungal biomaterial must first be released in order to properly compare these two products. As researchers, scientists, mycologists, and engineers continue working on the fundamentals of the upcoming myco-material, they are learning not only more about this superb fungi matter but about techniques to better the product. This material is an approaching technology with impending ramifications on the environment.
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About Tess Burzynksi
Tess Burzynski is an environmental science major at Wayne State University in Detroit, MI. Her goal is to reunite mushrooms and mankind on a personal and environmental level. She conducts fungi research and in her spare time enjoys hiking, traveling, reading and gardening. She is founder of the Detroit Spore Co.