The material was pioneered by Ecovative Design in the US and the licensee – Symbiotec – has already produced Ecovative’s Mushroom Packaging in small volumes. It is setting up production as the Magical Mushroom Company in a 5,000ft2 facility in Esher, Surrey.
Chief operating officer Paul Gilligan told Food Manufacture that he was already looking at a second 30,000ft2 site to cope with demand.
First developed in 2007, Mushroom Packaging, which is also known as MycoComposite, is a combination of mycelium (mushroom root mass) and hemp biomass. “This substrate is put into a mould and left for six days, then it is taken out and put in a kiln to dry,” Gilligan explained. “Cost and performance are equivalent to EPS.”
Pressed on the question of pricing, Gilligan would only say that this was “comparable” with EPS.
According to Ecovative, licensees are encouraged to source the ‘substrate’ of mycelium and biomass as locally as possible from established distributors.
To date, UK food and drink applications have included protective packaging for gin bottles, and Gilligan said the company was also looking at fish boxes. Other markets include consumer electronics and health & beauty. The business already had a list of more than 30 potential customers, he said.
R&D a core strength
It is less clear what Ecovative’s own experience with its material in North American packaging markets has been. Up until around two years ago, the company produced its cushioning materials on its upstate New York site. “At that time, the company pivoted,” said brand manager Lacey Davidson. “They realised that their strength was in R&D [research & development], not in manufacturing.”
Significantly consumer electronics producer Dell is listed by Ecovative as having been a ‘high-volume’ user of its Mushroom Packaging between 2011 and 2017.
More recently, Ecovative shipped its production equipment for Mushroom Packaging to a company called Paradise Packaging in California – a separate business. As a state, California has many of the toughest environmental restrictions on the use of EPS, with cities such as San Francisco leading the way.
Last October, Ecovative received a US$10m (£7.68m) shot of new capital from Senator Investment Group, the first significant amount since 2013, according to the company. With this investment, the focus is very much on the plant-based ‘meat’ sector, with the setting up of the Atlast Food Co. “Really, this food angle is our big focus for 2020,” said Davidson. “Naturally, we don’t want to miss the boat on meat substitutes.
However, she emphasised that, despite the introduction of this important, and potentially high-margin, food element, packaging remained a significant part of the business, with some 454 tonnes of it having been produced in the past year. “The new funding is as much to do with packaging as it is with food,” Davidson explained.
Not only was MycoComposite a “viable solution for packaging”, said Ecovative, but the new Mycelium Foundry One research facility would allow for the accelerated development and testing of new grades and composites for different purposes.
Meanwhile, the Packaging Innovations Show will provide a forum to debate the impact of packaging on the environment and explore eco-friendly packaging options.
A recent report published by the Green Alliance has suggested that brand owners seeking to replace plastics packaging with alternatives might just be replacing one set of problems with another, with minimal environmental benefit.