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Mycocycle and Meta are using fungi to decarbonize demolition with trash-eating mushrooms

cream-colored mushrooms on the bark of a tree
Image Credit: Jaap Straydog // Unsplash

Imagine this: an old building is being demolished and something new will be built in its place. Maybe it’s a new plant-based restaurant with a lot full of EV charging stations, a sustainable startup’s headquarters, or a climate science research facility. Either way, both the construction and demolition of the building could take a toll on the environment.

“When you remove a roof, you have A LOT of trash,” startup Mycocycle writes on its website. And “not just any trash,” the company says, “but construction and demolition debris.” According to Mycocycle, this particularly hard to get rid of debris is one key obstacle to the construction industry reaching net zero.

So, the company took the issue to the lab and cultivated fungi to myceliate the waste on-site at manufacturers, recyclers, and waste management companies.

How does this myceliation process work exactly? Much like breaking down a tree, fungi and mushrooms produce an enzyme that’s able to degrade natural and man-made chemicals.

From this process, Mycocycle says biomaterial can be rendered for commercial and or industrial use into new products, making waste from construction and demolition fully circular.

According to the company, this could potentially eliminate millions of tons of solid waste per year.

Now, the company is partnering with Meta, which invested in Mycocycle last year. They are launching a pilot project at one of Meta’s data centers in Gallatin, Tennessee to train mushrooms to eat trash and turn drywall debris into a fully circular product that reduces waste, returning drywall to the company’s data center buildings as newly manufactured building products.

“Initiatives like the Meta/Mycocycle cycle project are critical to the construction industry,” Joanne Rodriguez, founder and CEO of Mycocycle, said in a video announcing the project. “If you think about the waste stream alone 660 million tons of construction and demolition waste in the United States gets landfilled or incinerated annually.”

According to Meta, the Mycocycle project got its start while the company was doing research on how to address the construction waste coming off of job sites. It says drywall was one stubborn form of waste it struggled to deal with.

Daniel Reyes, Mycocycle’s head scientist, says that their processes fit into the circular economy model because “it takes waste streams from an existing industry and converts them into raw materials for a different process.”

“We’re looking at the final product of our pilot project using mycelium to convert gypsum drywall into a new mycelium deposit,” he said saying that over time, this organism will be used as filler material, insulation panels, and acoustic panels, among a plethora of applications.

It doesn’t end there. The company says the mushroom material is durable enough to replace petroleum-based products such as plastics. It’s both moldable and fire and water-resistant, making it what Mycocycle calls “a truly sustainable solution.”

Demolition represents 90% of construction and demolition (C&D) waste, with construction making up less than the other 10%. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the amount of C&D waste is double that of municipal solid waste, and of the 600 million tons generated in 2018 just under 145 million tons were sent to landfills with 455 million tons directed for next use, which depending on the material, may make the waste into fuel, manufactured products, compost, mulch, or soil amendment.

Mycocycle is trying to add to the next-use number with solely sustainable products.

Meta says that because of the size and scale of its data centers, projects like these are key to reducing its impact on construction waste.

“This initiative is so critical because drywall waste is a huge problem,” Jennifer Carland, sustainability manager of DPR, a construction company participating in the project, explains because when a lot of drywall hits landfills, it causes a chemical reaction with other materials.

It can create a strong rotten-egg-like odor and put hydrogen sulfide and ammonia in the air, which even at low levels can cause negative health effects on humans.

Drywall demolition isn’t the only application of Mycocycle’s fungi. Last year, the startup partnered with Lendlease, Rubicon Technologies, and Rockwood Sustainable Solutions to do a pilot project for roofing shingles.

According to the EPA, 11 to 13 million tons of asphalt shingles end up in landfills each year, where they take upwards of 300 years to break down. According to Sara Neff, Head of Sustainability at Lendlease Americas, only 5-10% of that is actually recycled.

So with its partners, Mycocycle conducted what it believes was a first-of-its-kind sustainability study to produce a sustainable and reusable product out of asphalt shingles.

According to data collected by the Waste Business Journal and backed up by Mycocycle as of 2021, there was less than 15% of landfill space left in the U.S. and that number continues to dwindle. The company says applying its treatment can help free up some of this space.

The Meta project is a part of the multinational technology company’s goal to reach net zero emissions across its value chain in 2030.

“As a building owner Meta has a lot of stake in driving circularity for social and environmental impact long-term by saying we’re going to put our money where our mouth is, we’re going to make this investment in innovation, and we’re going to look at unique companies bringing unique solutions, and closing the gap on technology that is missing currently in waste management and new material development,” Rodriguez said.

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