Are Mushrooms the Future of Zero Waste Packaging?
A concept we're hearing more and more about is "zero waste." Many businesses, organizations and events are putting in place reuse and recycling measures that are causing the amount of trash they're sending to landfills to plummet. It also means rethinking the products we use in the first place so we can use less of things with no recycle potential. That's why bans on single-use plastic bags are being enacted around the globe and efforts are being made to discourage consumption of products like bottled water that come in one-use plastic containers.
Some innovative companies are coming up with other products to replace those that might have had a long lifespan in a landfill. One such product is Mushroom Packaging, conceived and created by Ecovative Design, a company formed by a pair of students at New York's Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute in 2007. The company is making compostable bioplastics using mushroom mycelium and agricultural “waste” to create an alternative to traditional foam packaging such as fast food containers and packing peanuts. And Mushroom Materials are climate friendly. Unlike plastics, they involve no petroleum-based chemicals sourced from fossil fuels whose extraction fuels climate change
"Welcome to the Mushroom Age," the company says. "Let's look back on the Stone Age, the Metal Age and the Plastic Age. Materials have defined the world and how we live for millennia. Welcome to the Mushroom Age ... giving back to Mother Nature, for a change. Ecovative is a material science company developing a new class of home-compostable bioplastics based on mycelium, a living organism. Mushroom Materials are high-performance, environmentally responsible alternatives to traditional plastic foam packaging, insulation, and other synthetic materials."
OK, "Mushroom Age" may be overstating it but the company's idea is intriguing and it's proving workable. Mushroom Materials provides molded protective packaging to ship a range of products from wines to furniture delicate electronics. They perform just like those non-biodegradable plastic foam pieces, only they're home compostable. So instead of throwing them in the wastebasket, you can toss them in your composting bin with your vegetable scraps.
Home decor chain Crate & Barrel began its efforts to reduce waste and recycle in 2001 when it stopped using petroleum-based packing peanuts to ship customer orders. When it went looking for fully compostable packaging to protect its steel bookcases, it turned to Ecovative and Mushroom Materials.
"Since beginning their use of Mushroom Packaging corner blocks, Crate & Barrel has reported no damages," says Ecovative. "Customers can reuse the standard corner blocks or compost them at home."
Mushroom Materials also creates plastic-replacement materials for longer term use. They developed a material that can replace plastics in automobile interiors to protect passengers. And the company has developed a home insulation product from agricultural wastes that would avoid the negative environmental impacts of petrochemical-based insulation materials.
"In nature, there is no waste," says Ecovative's Sam Harrington. "Everything is food for something else. Tree 'waste' (aka leaves) feed bugs and mushrooms, which feed animals, and animal 'waste' fertilizes the trees (and also feeds bugs and mushrooms). But today, we humans are increasingly reliant on materials like plastic that don’t fit into natural systems. The beauty of Mushroom Packaging is that it will break down naturally at low temperatures at home. It’s made of materials that grow on farms and in forests, and there’s nothing artificial about it. From the Earth, to the Earth … and that makes us feel good."
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Jean-Marc Neveu and Olivier Civil never expected to find themselves battling against disposable mask pollution.
When they founded their recycling start-up Plaxtil in 2017, it was textile waste they set their sights on. The project developed a process that turned fabrics into a new recyclable material they describe as "ecological plastic."
Mounting Piles of Waste<p>It is not only the streets of Chatellerault where pandemic pollution is piling-up, but also the world's beaches and oceans. Once there, they can take up to 450 years to degrade and disappear.</p><p>Esther Röling, co-organizer of the annual Adventure Clean Up Challenge held on Hong Kong Island, has seen this waste firsthand. In October the sports challenge pitted teams against one another in a competition to remove trash from 13 hard-to-reach coastal areas around the city.</p><p>They find tons of both disposable and reusable masks, said Röling. "You wonder how it ended up there. Was it just thrown on the ground? Or was it in a garbage bag that broke open?"</p><p>Almost 10,000 kilometers away in Antibes on the sunny French Riviera, it's a similar picture. For the past few months, divers and clean-up volunteers working with an ocean clean-up non-profit called Operation Mer Propre have been collecting an increasing number of masks found on land and in the sea.</p><p>"Since the beginning of the lockdown when we started to count, we've reached 800, 900, [and now in total] 1000 masks," said co-founder Joko Peltier. </p><p>According to <a href="https://unctad.org/news/growing-plastic-pollution-wake-covid-19-how-trade-policy-can-help" target="_blank">UN estimates</a>, up to 75% of all coronavirus-related plastic could end up as waste in oceans and landfills.</p>
The Limits of Recycling<p>Yet not all are convinced the recycling of this waste is possible on a global scale. </p><p>"What those citizen groups are doing is really beneficial but once they collect it, it should just go to a landfill or an incinerator. They shouldn't necessarily expect it to get recycled," said Jonathan Krones, an industrial ecologist and visiting assistant professor of environmental studies at Boston College.</p><p>That's because mask recycling programs like Plaxtil are few and far between and most don't have the benefit of a readily adaptable production process. </p><p>Even in countries with solid recycling infrastructure, he says, the system is designed to separate out specific types of waste like bottles or cardboard.</p><p>"I imagine that it would be technically feasible to develop a separation process to filter out masks, but there simply aren't enough of them to make that economical," he said.</p><p>Collection is a big hurdle, he adds. Since each mask only weighs a fraction of a gram and they're scattered on roads or mixed with other trash, it is difficult and costly. </p><p>"You need a lot of raw material of the right quality to make investing in the recycling technology and the recycling system worthwhile," he said.<span></span><br></p>
Hemp, Sugar Cane and Sustainable Alternatives<p>Some projects are instead addressing the material used to make masks.</p><p>French company Geochanvre have created a mask made primarily from hemp, while in Australia, researchers at the Queensland University of Technology are experimenting with a disposable product made from agricultural waste. </p><p>Biodegradable options are exciting alternatives to reduce the fossil fuels needed for the creation of plastic-based masks, said Krones, but they don't absolve the wearer from the responsibility of what happens afterwards. </p><p>Bio-based masks often need their own composing solutions, he explains, because in landfill they can produce high amounts of the greenhouse gas methane when anaerobic bacteria feeds on the organic material. Methane is known to be significantly more potent than carbon dioxide.</p><p>"I think as long as we have in our mind that we want to have disposability, we're going to have to wrestle with a variety of different sorts of environmental tradeoffs," he said, adding that reusable, fabric masks are the best option available to most people.</p><p>Precimask is developing a clear face covering with an optional visor made from hard plastic, designed to be long-lasting.<br></p><p>Air enters either side of the cheeks through a technology normally found in pool filters and car exhaust systems, said company spokeswoman Juliette Chambet.</p><p>"We wanted to make ceramic-based filters that would be washable and cleanable, which would allow them to be reused as many times as desired without having to buy a new consumable or produce waste," she said. </p><p>Ultimately, encouraging mask wearers to think about the entire lifecycle of a mask is key, explains Neveu. </p><p>"We want people who put on the masks to realize that they are also responsible for the waste, he said. "It's not inevitable that this [pandemic] will become an environmental catastrophe.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.dw.com/en/covid-19-recycling-pollution-trash-pandemic/a-55707817" target="_blank">Deutsche Welle</a>.</em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649032193#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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