When my Mom was pregnant with me the taste of mushrooms made her nauseous. As I grew older, this tendency to be picky with my food choices persisted through my childhood. Growing up my Executive Chef, father, often provided alternatives to foods I dislike such as mushrooms. Even though mushrooms have never been at the top of my favorite food list, I do have a newfound appreciation for turning mushroom roots into alternative sustainable packaging. The future of sustainable packaging is dependent upon three areas; a concern for the environment, consumer demand for sustainable packaging and the protection of brand reputation.
A Concern For The Environment
Mushroom packaging is an initiative towards more sustainable packaging. The company Ecovative Design, has launched EcoCradle. EcoCradle is packaging that is made from crop waste and mushroom roots. Agricultural waste is transformed into packing material by the help of mycelium. Mycelium is the living root structure of mushroom fungi. The mycelium acts as a natural glue which is responsible for binding the biomaterials of agricultural waste together. To me this is a better option than polystyrene foam packaging that sits in the landfill for many years and takes up space in the landfills worldwide!
Styrofoam also known as polystyrene is made from petroleum. A carcinogenic chemical known as benzene is implemented into its structure during production. Styrofoam is not a material that is biodegradable leaving it more susceptible to being taken to landfills. It is reported to take up more than 30% space capacity of landfills worldwide. The prevalence of styrofoam leaves room for risk to the animals that inhabit our environment. Once ingested by animals, styrofoam blocks their digestive tracts and can lead to starvation.
Styrofoam creates a recycling nightmare, that is when it is even being recycled. The transportation cost to the recycling center, energy and water needed to clean the styrofoam makes recycling styrofoam expensive.
Consumer Demand for Sustainable Packaging
Although United States consumer demand for sustainable packaging has increased, the percentage of consumers willing to pay more for a product to cover the cost of the sustainable packaging has not risen proportionally. If products did not cost more than conventional packaged ones, more US consumers would buy products with sustainable packaging. While manufacturers are seeking new sustainable ways to package products, if the product cost with the new sustainable packaging is higher than what the market will bear, then they will continue to use styrofoam instead of alternatives like mushroom roots. Manufacturers need to find ways to reduce the cost of sustainable packaging so that more businesses will use it.
Protecting Brand Reputation
In the summer of 2020, I got a job at a fast food restaurant. I started to notice firsthand the amount of waste that just one fast food restaurant could produce in a day. As I spent years at this company, I noticed my initial observation of the waste problem was only getting worse. The restaurant used a surplus of styrofoam products as well as plastics; two things that are not even close to being biodegradable. The restaurant relied so heavily on styrofoam and plastics that the provisions such as drink cups were even being shipped to the restaurant in plastic sleeves. When I took the trash out each night, I would have to use a cart to wheel all the bags of garbage to the dumpster. I realized all this trash was destined to fill a landfill with no hope of being reused through recycling. Brands including the fast food restaurant, are beginning to feel pressure as consumers are demanding sustainable packaging. Brands, such as the restaurant where I worked, will need to develop future goals to drive them towards a sustainable packaging life cycle in order to maintain a good public perception. This in turn will increase the brand’s relevancy by staying in touch with the sustainability trend.
Ultimately, responsibility for the future of sustainable packaging is equally in the hands of the manufacturer and consumer. Manufacturers lead the charge with concern for the environment. This is achieved through the choice to implement environmentally biodegradable materials such as mycelium. Consumers can support manufacturers who offer products with sustainable packaging and turn away from purchasing merchandise from brands who depend upon conventional (polystyrene) packaging. As a consumer myself, I will continue to turn away from eating mushrooms, while turning towards products packed in sustainable mushroom root packaging.
Essay by: Ella Ziegler
Palm Beach Atlantic University