Mushrooms are one of the most promising new materials in MELT’s toolkit and are starting to become the material of choice for a number of our projects. Our interest in this material started from the work we did on the MYCOmmunity toilet project.
The origins of the MYCOmmunity toilet come from a project started at the Hallam lab at UBC, who were working with the Peter Wall Institute to explore using mycelium for waste-water treatment. While working on the project, one of the members of the Hallam lab discovered the Biodesign challenge and suggested the project be entered into the competition. The Biodesign challenge is a competition that is intended to encourage design students and biologists to work together on solutions for future problems.
I was asked by professor Joe Dahmen if I would be interested in working on the submission. My expectation was that I would be working on mockups, but soon discovered that the team was still exploring concepts that would be better suited for the competition. I was aware that 1 out of 5 people on the planet do not have access to adequate sanitation. Could we build a toilet out of mycelium?
The idea was a hit, but there were a lot of challenges ahead of us. Could we grow a toilet at that scale? Would we be creating a methane bomb? We got to work on the idea, iterating through the design, refining shapes, and thinking about how we could mass produce our concept.
We settled on a portable toilet kit designed for refugee camps that uses a mycelium tank to eventually turn human waste into compost. Everything needed to set up the toilet is packed into one kit, which users can set up into a small, sit-down toilet with a traditional seat and a tank for waste. The appliance is designed to fit into a refugee tent and serve a family of six for up to a month.
When the tank is full, it can be moved to a different location and buried, and the mushroom spores get to work turning the poop into compost. The kit comes with seeds that can be planted on top of the buried toilet, turning the waste into new growth. This continues a long-standing process of using biosolids to fertilize crops, as humans have done for thousands of years.
We submitted our project for consideration in the Biodesign challenge and were excited to find out that we had been selected to present in New York. Seeing the other challengers was incredibly rewarding. Our competitors were all great examples of how biology and design can intersect, and how there are so many untapped materials and resources. One project in particular really stood out for me – a team that was creating compostable diapers out of coconut husks.
Winning the Biodesign challenge brought us funding and a new interest in the project, which gave us the chance to gain some practical hands-on experience using mushrooms as a material.
Our first task after winning was figuring out how we could get enough mushrooms to build our prototypes. We quickly found that it was quite hard to find a consistent source, although this research introduced us to people who became incredibly helpful in building up our production capacity as we started growing our own. During the early days we ran into numerous challenges. The MELT lab quickly became too small to handle our growing mushroom farm, which started to interfere with the other projects we were working on.
Unfortunately, we ran into challenges when testing our hypothesis of the toilet’s ability to process human waste. Canadian regulations and the limitations around how biohazards (such as human waste) must be handled in a lab environment were hard to overcome, and progress has been slow over the past year. While this has been a setback, we still believe the MYCOmmunity toilet has a bright future ahead of it. We have recently secured a spot to test the toilet with the help of the UBC botanical garden. We are also eager to test the toilet in Indonesia, where we may be able to test more easily thanks to a potential partnership with Green School.
One big discovery was that building the capacity and experience to work with a new material is challenging but can introduce new opportunities. We now have the tools and environment to grow mycelium and use it in our other projects. We have already revisited the biomaterial surfboard and produced a new version made with mushrooms. The cigarette skateboard was originally created with glue and cigarette butts, but a more organic version could be created with antler mushrooms. I see the big success from the MYCOmmunity toilet project to be our new capacity to use mushrooms in our future work.
The lessons from MYCOmmunity toilet have influenced MELT’s next project, the development of a tool and material knowledge base. There is still a lot of experimentation and optimization left to be done on biomaterials before we can get to a point where they are effective substitutes for common materials, but this work is more urgent than ever. Geography also plays a big role when working with biomaterials, as every part of the world has a unique species of mycelium with unique properties. This is why an open source; publicly accessible materials library is so important.