When it comes to sustainable business practices, European companies are unquestionably leading the drive towards greener manufacturing, product development, and packaging. The latest example of this sees home decor giant IKEA furthering its commitment to sustainable innovation by using mushroom-based packaging that eliminates the need for other wasteful materials.
Shipping products from one side of the planet to the other means ensuring the merchandise will arrive undamaged. More often than not, plastic foam, or polystyrene, is the lightweight functional material selected to do that job. But IKEA recognizes the damage to the planet that polystyrene causes, mostly because it takes hundreds (if not thousands) of years to decompose in landfill. By contrast, plant-based packaging can break down in a matter of weeks. Developed by product design company Ecovative Design, the mycelium-based material is called Mushroom Packaging, or MycoComposite. The material is actually grown in a controlled environment in less than a week, providing a sustainable option for any packaging requirement that might arise.
Mycelium works in conjunction with several other plant-based materials, including hemp, husk, oat hulls, and cotton burrs. The manufacturing of the new packaging material begins at the Ecovative Design foundry based in Green Island, New York, where the company has already partnered with several local farmers. Once ground, sorted, and cleaned, the agricultural products are combined with the mycelium and sealed for several days. During that time, the fungus grows around those products, filling the empty spaces within the mold. The newly-formed material is then heat treated to dry out, kill spores, and ensure the stop of the growth process.
Joanna Yarrow, Head of Sustainability for IKEA in the UK, says that “the great thing about mycelium is you can grow it into a mold that then fits exactly. You can create bespoke packaging.”
Based in Sweden, IKEA has long been a leader in corporate and environmental responsibility, going so far as to offer a plant-based alternative to the famous IKEA meatballs in response to reports of harmful methane gas emissions caused from raising cattle.
“IKEA wants to have a positive impact on people and planet,” explains another company spokesperson, “which includes taking a lead in turning waste into resources, developing reverse material flows for waste materials, and ensuring key parts of our range are easily recycled.”
Yarrow adds that deciding to use the mushroom-based packaging material was the retailer’s “small yet significant step towards reducing waste and conserving ecological balance.”
Conventional packaging waste makes up a massive portion of the plastic pollution damaging waterways, animals, and natural resources. On top of that, plastic is sourced from petroleum, which is itself an extremely limited resource. Even the manufacture of plastic pollutes the air. Post-consumer use, plastic lays around for generations, seeping into the dirt and water where animals then ingest it. Humans, in turn, eat those animals.
Mushroom and other plant-based packaging, on the other hand, uses a fraction of the energy required to make plastic, produces minimal carbon emissions, and naturally breaks down into the Earth with no pollution. So what IKEA may describe as a “small yet significant step” might just be the end-all answer to cutting plastic production and waste while protecting animal and human health.