Mushrooms are taking over the world. Mushroom mycelia networks, underground branched structures of hyphae that make up the vegetative formation of fungi, can stretch for miles—one particular mycelia growth in Oregon clocks in at approximately 2,400 acres. And these vast organisms show great promise in the industrial field. Sue Van Hook would be the first to tell you that mushrooms are not just a passing foodie fad: “Our western world phobia with mushrooms is over… mushrooms will increase as part of our diets, as part of our medicine chests, as part of our bee hives, and as restorers of habitats.”
Sue, a graduate of Humboldt State University with an M.A. in Biology, has been enmeshed with nature since her early childhood. “I was fortunate as a young child to spend my summers on a Maine island.” There, she found herself doing everything from working on a lobster boat with her grandfather, to digging clams, to playing in tide pools—anything to keep her out of the house and in-tune with nature.
That early love of nature translated itself into a life of investigation and observation centered on fungi. “As a scientist, I have spent 4 decades making observations, asking questions, and testing those questions by collecting and analyzing data.”
Sue pursues natural forms of healing, partially as a result of her past battle with breast cancer: “While undergoing treatments for 9 months, I knew I had to heal my immune system response. To do that, I turned to meditation, herbal supplements, plant essential oils, and medicinal mushrooms… The healing plants, fungi, and arts are ancient ‘knowns’ used and practiced for four to five thousand years. The access to them has been retained by indigenous cultures, but denied and suppressed by big pharma. While I am grateful for the chemo drugs I had to kill cancer cells, I also am aware the same company that poisons our ecosystems with pesticides making us sick, cashes in at the other end selling chemo drugs.”
This combination of pharmaceutical drugs and indigenous medicinal practices is a result of Sue’s relentless pursuit of investigation, experimentation, and reconnection with nature. And that natural love of inquiry has led her to her current work with Ecovative design.
Ecovative Design: The Industrial Application of Mushrooms
Ecovative Design is a mushroom-focused company that produces various materials composed of mushroom mycelium and agricultural waste, such as husks and stalks.
Sue’s role at Ecovative is as Chief Mycologist—she is responsible for procuring strains of mushrooms from the wild, and for educating all employees about the ins-and-outs of cultivating and researching mushrooms.
In short, the mushrooms cultivated at Ecovative digest agricultural waste and produce a strong support material that can be used in packaging, among other areas. Sue mentions that “…we have already replaced plastic styrene foam packaging and replaced carcinogenic resins in particle boards for furniture and building materials.”
Sue is passionate about the impact that mushroom materials could have on industry. As she states, “The current markets pay nothing for the ecological and health costs of their products’ entire life cycle: carcinogenic toxic styrenes.” At present, there is no accountability for the long-term disposal of certain products, such as styrofoam packing peanuts. And there’s a reason for that: “Plastics are cheap because they are made of petroleum that is heavily subsidized. If we chose to subsidize agricultural crops and mycelium, folks would be lining up down the street to become an Ecovative customer.”
In addition to the packaging materials mentioned above, Sue mentions that “We grew a mushroom insulated tiny house. We have replaced plastic foams used for art and architecture installations and surfboard cores, hand planes, and drones. We have replaced foam used in dried floral arrangements. We replaced plastic foam buoyant rings used to launch NOAA’s climate change/tsunami detection devices.”
At this point, the sky isn’t even close to the limit for Ecovative’s potential: “Within the next decade, we will replace plastics used in marine fisheries and dock flotation, pursue wetland revegetation restoration, replace toxic bromide flame retardants in seat cushions, door and wall panels, headrests and bedding for cars, planes, trains, and boats.”
The promise of mushrooms in undeniable. The trick will be convincing the world to return to nature when major industries lobby for continuing the status quo.
Bio for Will Klinedinst: Will dabbles in a little bit of everything: marketing, writing, sleeping, eating, powerlifting, musing, arguing, sleeping, and burning in the sun. He's a storied cynic and a graduate of York College of Pennsylvania. He works in marketing in Lititz, PA, and can quote Robin Hood: Men in Tights by heart. Follow his ramblings at willklinedinst.com!
Telluride Mushroom Festival Blog
Various members of the Telluride Mushroom Festival community contribute to this blog.