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Mushroom packaging could provide a new solution to plastic waste problem

A start-up packaging company in Melbourne has joined a growing global effort to divert organic waste from landfill and is the first in Australia to do it using fungi. 

Camden Cooke and Amanda Morgan first launched Fungi Solutions in 2020 with hopes to reduce waste.

Almost three years later, they have stopped about 900 kilograms of waste from heading to landfill and prevented thousands of tonnes of carbon pollution.

They combine fungi with organic waste to grow and create compostable packaging.

“Fungi Solutions was built out of a passion to create alternatives for waste management and to show that there is a natural non-harmful solution to the global waste issue,” Mr Cooke said.

The pair currently work with a local wine producer Minimum Wines, using waste from the wine production to create packaging for the bottles.

“The CSIRO’s identified grape marc [solid waste leftover from pressing grapes] as being one of the most abundant food loss streams in horticulture,” Ms Morgan said.

“They have about a 30 percent loss of their entire harvest as a waste product at the end of that process, so that represents a huge opportunity to convert that into a valuable product,” she said.

How does it work?

The process starts with organic waste that would otherwise be headed for landfill — agricultural waste such as stems, seeds and cut offs, or commercial waste like textiles, cardboard paper and sawdust.

Next, the waste is broken down and combined with mycelium, the root network of fungi, and placed in a mould.

The mould is placed in a dark, warm room and grown to form in seven days. It’s then dried to create a solid packaging.

The final product is able to be used in place of traditional materials such as polystyrene.

“So it feels like polystyrene and cardboard had a baby,” Ms Morgan said.

“It’s just a beautiful blend of the two materials with all the great performance of a polystyrene.”

After use, the packaging can be composted in the garden, preventing any waste to landfill or the environment.

What is the packaging waste problem?

Australia needs alternatives to plastic packaging given our huge waste problem, Australian Packaging Covenant chief executive Chris Foley said.

Each year in Australia, 6.3 million tonnes of packaging is put on the market, but only 54 percent is recycled.

For every tonne of waste or packaging that goes to landfill, there are environmental impacts.

“That ends up in the environment more broadly, whether it be through waterways, or just as litter,” Mr Foley said.

Australia has a national target to remove all single-use plastic packaging by 2025, and for all packaging to be recyclable, reusable or compostable.

Mr Foley said Australia was already failing to reach that target, mainly because of COVID and because sustainable infrastructure keeps failing to keep up, such as the recent REDcycle program.

There’s a huge need for new innovative solutions, he said.

What is the organic waste problem?

RMIT’s Dr Simon Lockrey, who runs the reduce program at Fight Food Waste Cooperative Research Centre, said the fact that mushroom packaging can use organic waste otherwise headed for landfill is a bonus when it comes to sustainability.

“Food loss and waste globally, accounts for 6 to 8 percent of climate change emissions,” he said.

“So we really need to reduce food loss and waste, and packaging can actually play a role in that.”

For a material to be considered sustainable, the entire life cycle would need to prove low impact.

“In packaging systems, when we look at life cycle assessment, you look at the material intensity, the production intensity, how heavy it is to transport per unit of volume, as well as how many times it’s used — is it single use? Or is it reusable?” Dr Lockrey said.

Compostable packaging is a viable solution, as long as the production and transport process is low emission, and it’s properly composted and not left to release methane in landfill, he said.

From packaging to compost

Mushroom packaging has been created overseas, but Fungi Solutions is the first company of its kind in Australia.

Mr Cooke and Ms Morgan hope their packaging will eventually be found on supermarket shelves.

They have also been working on a way to reuse cigarette butts.

And they’ve been working on collecting organic waste from local councils for reuse.

“People are looking for more new, regenerative and natural solutions [to packaging],” she said

“We’re hoping to see the process scaled up so we can meet the volume of demand.”

Mr Cooke believes mushrooms have the potential to transform packaging waste.

“We can see a future where there’ll be ‘myco-cycling’ facilities across Australia,” he said.

“The solution is simple: reduce and save waste from landfill, re-use and make new products, and recycle.

“With the help of mycelium we can revolutionise waste.”

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