Is Mushroom Packaging The Answer?

We live in a world that ships nearly 160 billion packages annually, and that figure is estimated to grow to 256 billion in the next five years.


It’s no wonder that the race to find the most sustainable packaging option continues, and Swedish furniture mogul, IKEA, is running full speed. The company recently announced that it’s replacing all Styrofoam packaging with mushroom packaging—a compostable and biodegradable material.

In a world that’s not yet equipped to properly handle compostable packaging, we’d like to use this announcement as an opportunity to open the floor to a conversation about whether or not mushrooms are a viable solution. As IKEA’s Head of Sustainability states, the switch to mushroom packaging is a “small yet significant step towards reducing waste and conserving ecological balance.”

That might be true, but we hope it doesn’t serve as an excuse for other companies to follow suit and consequently miss other (potentially more practical) sustainable packaging solutions—especially before the verdict is in on mushroom packaging.


What is Mushroom Packaging?

Mushroom packaging is exactly what it sounds like—packaging made of mushrooms.

Once all the spaces are filled, the final product is heated to the point where active spores are killed, ceasing mold growth. This whole process takes less than a week, making mushroom packaging a hot commodity.


What Are the Claimed Benefits of Mushroom Packaging?

Mushroom packaging claims the following environmental benefits.

  • Energy: It requires only 12% of the energy required to produce plastic packaging.
  • Wildlife: Because it’s a natural material, it reduces adverse effects if/when land or sea animals accidentally ingest it.
  • Carbon Emissions: It produces a mere 10% of the carbon emissions that emerge from plastic manufacturing.
  • Decomposition: It can decompose in about 30 days. For reference, Styrofoam can take hundreds (even thousands) of years to break down in a landfill.

We emphasize the word can because composability is very dependent on the disposal method. Claiming that a material can decompose in 30 days does not mean that if you simply throw it in your garden, it will decompose within that time frame. It requires specific conditions to decompose, which is why home composting and industrial composting are the most effective disposal methods.

Remember that both of these methods require very specific conditions to ensure success—high temperatures, diverse microorganisms, and availability. At this point, many home compost heaps don’t exist under prime conditions and most industrial composting facilities actually refuse compostable packaging such as mycelium.

It’s difficult to determine how long it will (not can) take for something to decompose in less-than-ideal conditions—such as the conditions in a landfill or on the side of the road. With that being said, companies that manufacture this packaging claim that it’s completely circular, litter-friendly, and adds no environmental burden if it ends up in a landfill.


Is Mushroom Packaging Fit for Mass Production?

As a furniture giant like IKEA transitions to mushroom packaging (and countless other companies take note), it’s important to ask ourselves if this material is fit for mass production and use.

  • Evidence: It’s no secret that IKEA is one of the first powerhouses to switch to mushroom packaging, so we actually don’t know how well it will perform on a large scale. What we do know is that worldwide infrastructure already cannot handle the amount of compostable packaging that’s produced worldwide.
  • Infrastructure: As a reminder, only about 15% of industrial composting facilities in the US accept some form of compostable packaging, and most of the 272 industrial composting facilities in the UK refuse this type of waste. Will mushroom packaging actually get composted? How long will it take to decompose in a landfill if it’s not properly composted? These are other factors that should be explored before beginning mass production.
  • Durability: It’s important to note that mushroom packaging can only be used for packaging dry products—the material will lose its rigidity ​​when exposed to moisture. In environments below 85% relative humidity, mycelium tends to absorb low amounts of water (<6%). However, when conditions reach 100% relative humidity, mycelium’s water uptake can reach 20%, which is much higher than most other materials.
  • Production: While there are many variables to consider during production, it’s undeniable that mushroom packaging is more time intensive and expensive to produce than other options such as low-grade molded pulp. We can produce molded pulp in around six hours at a low cost comparable to Styrofoam. Mushroom packaging, on the other hand, takes up to seven days to produce and can cost up to 10x as much.
  • Scalability: Thus far, mycelium-based materials have achieved success in the realm of small commercial products. But the production of mycelium involves various complex, biological variables—long production cycles, contamination risk, and multi-step growing processes. Analysis shows that it’s difficult to consistently reproduce a specific material profile, which poses problems when thinking about scaling the production of mycelium. Leading producers such as EcoVative are now using genetic engineering to address some of these conditions, but it’s possible that the material is not quite ready for mass production yet.
  • End-of-Life Handling: As mentioned above, the “big picture” success of this material depends heavily on end consumers’ commitment to keeping the packaging and their willingness and opportunity to properly dispose of the material once they’re done with it. When recycling rates continue to hover around 50%—and industrial recycling is generally much more accessible than industrial composting—can we truly expect proper end-of-life handling for mushroom packaging?


Instead of jumping into sustainable “solutions” for mass packaging production that have not been tried and tested on an appropriate scale, we believe in talking about—and prioritizing—solutions that are proven to deliver the intended benefits.

We do not intend to criticize IKEA’s decision to transition to mushroom packaging. We believe mushroom packaging is a step in the right direction. We’d actually like to commend and celebrate IKEA’s work in the world of sustainable packaging. After all, they’ve reduced their packaging volume by 50% over the last few years, and we believe that deserves to be a spotlight story and point of aspiration for those who view IKEA as a role model in the realm of sustainability.

As always, we believe that packaging requires a very individualized approach. While mushroom packaging could be an acceptable solution in an ideal world, we want everyone to be wary of using it as an excuse to follow big names like IKEA—instead of analyzing and discovering alternative solutions that might work better for your company and its consumers.


8 November 2022
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