• Mycelium is the mass of branched fibers comprising the vegetative part of a fungus.
  • The substance can be used to grow strong and compostable material in different shapes.
  • It can make everything from building bricks to meat alternatives.
  • Mushroom mycelium could prove key in the creation of a circular economy.

Easy to grow and fully biodegradable, mycelium – essentially, the vegetative part of a mushroom – could prove to be the ultimate green material for the future. It can be turned into everything from fashionable handbags, to packaging, to even bricks.

What is Mycelium? Understanding mushroom mycelium.

Mycelium is the mass of branched fibers making up a fungus. It is a safe, strong, and biodegradable material with a wide range of uses. However, unlike plastics and other synthetic materials – which can take hundreds of years to decompose – mycelium-based products naturally degrade after their intended product cycle.

The mighty mushroom is full of mycelium.
Image: Pixabay

More sustainable, these products could also help create a circular economy, which aims to eliminate waste and transform how we produce and use goods. It is estimated that the circular economy could offer up to $4.5 trillion in global economic benefits by 2030, alongside environmental benefits such as lower emissions and better land use.


What is the World Economic Forum doing about the circular economy?

The World Economic Forum has created a series of initiatives to promote circularity.

1. Scale360° Playbook was designed to build lasting ecosystems for the circular economy and help solutions scale.

Scale360° Playbook Journey
Image: Scale360° Playbook

Its unique hub-based approach - launched this September - is designed to prioritize circular innovation while fostering communities that allow innovators from around the world to share ideas and solutions. Emerging innovators from around the world can connect and work together ideas and solutions through the UpLink, the Forum's open innovation platform.

Discover how the Scale360° Playbook can drive circular innovation in your community.

2. A new Circular Cars Initiative (CCI) embodies an ambition for a more circular automotive industry. It represents a coalition of more than 60 automakers, suppliers, research institutions, NGOs and international organizations committed to realizing this near-term ambition.

CCI has recently released a new series of circularity “roadmaps”, developed in collaboration with the World Economic Forum, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), McKinsey & Co. and Accenture Strategy. These reports explain the specifics of this new circular transition.

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3. The World Economic Forum’s Accelerating Digital Traceability for Sustainable Production initiative brings together manufacturers, suppliers, consumers and regulators to jointly establish solutions and provide a supporting ecosystem to increase supply chain visibility and accelerate sustainability and circularity across manufacturing and production sectors.

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To help support circular innovation, the World Economic Forum has created the Scale360° Playbook, an initiative developed to build lasting ecosystems for the circular economy, bringing together technologists, researchers, entrepreneurs, and governments to help maximize resources and expertise. Additionally, emerging innovators from around the world can connect and work together in sharing ideas and solutions through UpLink, the Forum's open innovation platform.

Here are five sustainable alternatives that can be made with mycelium.

A ‘biobrick’, produced from mushrooms mycelium and used by Redhouse Architecture.
Image: Redhouse Architecture.

1. Greener building materials

Mycelium composites – made by growing mycelium on agricultural waste – can create low-cost and greener building materials, which could help reduce reliance on fossil fuel-based products in the construction industry.

Mushroom mycelium based bricks created by Ecovative Design made the headlines in 2014 when they were used in an award-winning compostable tower at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Meanwhile, Redhouse Architecture says it can recycle derelict homes by demolishing buildings and mixing the remains with mycelium to create new material – a process which could also create temporary homes in disaster zones using a portable ‘biocycler’.

2. Sustainable clothing

Clothing manufacturers are increasingly turning to mycelium to create green alternatives to leather and synthetic textiles. These could prove vital in reducing the carbon footprint of the fashion industry, one of the world’s most polluting sectors.

Examples include MycoWorks’ leather alternative, Reishi, which was unveiled at New York Fashion Week and hailed by Vogue as “nothing short of revelatory”. Meanwhile, Bolt Threads has signed a deal with global fashion houses including Adidas and Stella McCartney to use its mycelium-based textile Mylo in products like footwear, clothing, and accessories.

IKEA and Dell have committed to using mycelium packaging like this.
Image: Mycobond

3. Compostable packaging

Mycelium can be used to make standard and custom-molded packaging that is 100% biodegradable, thereby reducing reliance on plastic and polystyrene. Mushroom Packaging uses hemp hurds and mushroom mycelium to create water-resistant and insulating solutions that compost within 30 days when added to soil.

Swedish furniture giant IKEA and computer manufacturer Dell are some of the biggest businesses to have already committed to using mycelium packaging, with smaller firms such as UK-based non-alcoholic spirit maker Seedlip also joining the trend.


What is the World Economic Forum doing about plastic pollution?

More than 90% of plastic is never recycled, and a whopping 8 million metric tons of plastic waste are dumped into the oceans annually. At this rate, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans by 2050.

The Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP) is a collaboration between businesses, international donors, national and local governments, community groups and world-class experts seeking meaningful actions to beat plastic pollution.

In Ghana, for example, GPAP is working with technology giant SAP to create a group of more than 2,000 waste pickers and measuring the quantities and types of plastic that they collect. This data is then analysed alongside the prices that are paid throughout the value chain by buyers in Ghana and internationally.

It aims to show how businesses, communities and governments can redesign the global “take-make-dispose” economy as a circular one in which products and materials are redesigned, recovered and reused to reduce environmental impacts.

Read more in our impact story.

4. Animal-free meats

Mycelium can also be used to make plant-based ‘meats’. Unlike other meat alternatives which predominantly come in ground form – such as burgers or mince – mycelium can be grown into a 3D form or shaped post-processing.

Meati, a Colorado-based alt-meat brand, claims its mycelium-based products will eventually use 99% less water and land and emit 99% less carbon than industrially-produced animal meat.

Mycelium-based products like this aim to emit 99% less carbon than its animal equivalent.
Image: Meati

5. Disposable healthcare products

In a bid to address disposable plastics in the beauty industry, Ecovative Design has created MycoFlex foam, which the company says is 100% compostable. The foam can be used in anything from make-up sponges to single-use slippers and masks.

As for the future, the company thinks mycelium will be capable of creating medical products – even organs. “My dream is to one day grow a lung and seed it with lung cells and use the mushroom mycelium to create the capillary network and use the human cells to create the actual lung,” CEO Eben Bayer told CNN.

If this sounds a stretch, Tradd Cotter, microbiologist and owner of research company, Mushroom Mountain, sounded a similarly optimistic note in National Geographic: “As far as [mushrooms’] versatility in agriculture, medicine, and in the laboratory, there’s not much they can’t do.”