TOEFL Quiz 13: Replacing Plastic
Quiz by: Danielle_BIA

So, I'd like to spend a few minutes with you folks today imagining
what our planet might look like in a thousand years. But before I do
that, I need to talk to you about synthetic materials like plastics,
which require huge amounts of energy to create and, because of
their disposal issues, are slowly poisoning our planet. I also want to
tell you and share with you how my team and I have been using
mushrooms over the last three years. Not like that. (Laughter) We're
using mushrooms to create an entirely new class of materials, which
perform a lot like plastics during their use, but are made from crop
waste and are totally compostable at the end of their lives.


But first, I need to talk to you about what I consider one of the most
egregious offenders in the disposable plastics category. This is a
material you all know is Styrofoam, but I like to think of it as toxic
white stuff. In a single cubic foot of this material -- about what
would come around your computer or large television -- you have
the same energy content of about a liter and a half of petrol. Yet,
after just a few weeks of use, you'll throw this material in the trash.
And this isn't just found in packaging. 20 billion dollars of this
material is produced every year, in everything from building
materials to surfboards to coffee cups to table tops. And that's not
the only place it's found. The EPA estimates, in the United States, by
volume, this material occupies 25 percent of our landfills. Even
worse is when it finds its way into our natural environment -- on
the side of the road or next to a river. If it's not picked up by a
human, like me and you, it'll stay there for thousands and
thousands of years. Perhaps even worse is when it finds its way into
our oceans, like in the great plastic gyre, where these materials are
being mechanically broken into smaller and smaller bits, but they're
not really going away. They're not biologically compatible. They're
basically fouling up Earth's respiratory and circulatory systems. And
because these materials are so prolific, because they're found in so
many places, there's one other place you'll find this material,
styrene, which is made from benzene, a known carcinogen. You'll
find it inside of you.

So, for all these reasons, I think we need better materials, and there
are three key principles we can use to guide these materials. The
first is feedstocks. Today, we use a single feedstock, petroleum, to
heat our homes, power our cars and make most of the materials
you see around you. We recognize this is a finite resource, and it's
simply crazy to do this, to put a liter and a half of petrol in the trash
every time you get a package. Second of all, we should really strive
to use far less energy in creating these materials. I say far less,
because 10 percent isn't going to cut it. We should be talking about
half, a quarter, one-tenth the energy content. And lastly, and I think
perhaps most importantly, we should be creating materials that fit
into what I call nature's recycling system. This recycling system has
been in place for the last billion years. I fit into it, you fit into it, and
a hundred years tops, my body can return to the Earth with no
preprocessing. Yet that packaging I got in the mail yesterday is
going to last for thousands of years. This is crazy.

But nature provides us with a really good model here. When a tree's
done using its leaves -- its solar collectors, these amazing
molecular photon capturing devices -- at the end of a season, it
doesn't pack them up, take them to the leaf reprocessing center
and have them melted down to form new leaves. It just drops them,
the shortest distance possible, to the forest floor, where they're
actually upcycled into next year's topsoil. And this gets us back to
the mushrooms. Because in nature, mushrooms are the recycling
system. And what we've discovered is, by using a part of the
mushroom you've probably never seen -- analogous to its root
structure; it's called mycelium -- we can actually grow materials
with many of the same properties of conventional synthetics.

Now, mycelium is an amazing material, because it's a self-
assembling material. It actually takes things we would consider
waste -- things like seed husks or woody biomass -- and can
transform them into a chitinous polymer, which you can form into
almost any shape. In our process, we basically use it as a glue. And
by using mycelium as a glue, you can mold things just like you do
in the plastic industry, and you can create materials with many
different properties, materials that are insulating, fire-resistant,
moisture-resistant, vapor-resistant -- materials that can absorb
impacts, that can absorb acoustical impacts. But these materials are
grown from agricultural byproducts, not petroleum. And because
they're made of natural materials, they are 100 percent
compostable in you own backyard.

So I'd like to share with you the four basic steps required to make
these materials. The first is selecting a feedstock, preferably
something that's regional, that's in your area, right -- local
manufacturing. The next is actually taking this feedstock and
putting in a tool, physically filling an enclosure, a mold, in whatever
shape you want to get. Then you actually grow the mycelium
through these particles, and that's where the magic happens,
because the organism is doing the work in this process, not the
equipment. The final step is, of course, the product, whether it's a
packaging material, a table top, or building block. Our vision is
local manufacturing, like the local food movement, for production.
So we've created formulations for all around the world using
regional byproducts. If you're in China, you might use a rice husk or
a cottonseed hull. If you're in Northern Europe or North America,
you can use things like buckwheat husks or oat hulls. We then
process these husks with some basic equipment.

And I want to share with you a quick video from our facility that
gives you a sense of how this looks at scale. So what you're seeing
here is actually cotton hulls from Texas, in this case. It's a waste
product. And what they're doing in our equipment is going through
a continuous system, which cleans, cooks, cools and pasteurizes
these materials, while also continuously inoculating them with our
mycelium. This gives us a continuous stream of material that we
can put into almost any shape, though today we're making corner
blocks. And it's when this lid goes on the part, that the magic really
starts. Because the manufacturing process is our organism. It'll
actually begin to digest these wastes and, over the next five days,
assemble them into biocomposites. Our entire facility is comprised
of thousands and thousands and thousands of these tools sitting
indoors in the dark, quietly self-assembling materials -- and
everything from building materials to, in this case, a packaging
corner block.

So I've said a number of times that we grow materials. And it's kind
of hard to picture how that happens. So my team has taken five
days-worth of growth, a typical growth cycle for us, and condensed
it into a 15-second time lapse. And I want you to really watch
closely these little white dots on the screen, because, over the five-
day period, what they do is extend out and through this material,
using the energy that's contained in these seed husks to build this
chitinous polymer matrix. This matrix self-assembles, growing
through and around the particles, making millions and millions of
tiny fibers. And what parts of the seed husk we don't digest,
actually become part of the final, physical composite. So in front of
your eyes, this part just self-assembled. It actually takes a little
longer. It takes five days. But it's much faster than conventional

The last step, of course, is application. In this case, we've grown a
corner block. A major Fortune 500 furniture maker uses these
corner blocks to protect their tables in shipment. They used to use
a plastic packaging buffer, but we were able to give them the exact
same physical performance with our grown material. Best of all,
when it gets to the customer, it's not trash. They can actually put
this in their natural ecosystem without any processing, and it's
going to improve the local soil.

So, why mycelium? The first reason is local open feedstocks. You
want to be able to do this anywhere in the world and not worry
about peak rice hull or peak cottonseed hulls, because you have
multiple choices. The next is self-assembly, because the organism
is actually doing most of the work in this process. You don't need a
lot of equipment to set up a production facility. So you can have lots
of small facilities spread all across the world. Biological yield is
really important. And because 100 percent of what we put in the
tool become the final product, even the parts that aren't digested
become part of the structure, we're getting incredible yield rates.

Natural polymers, well ... I think that's what's most important,
because these polymers have been tried and tested in our
ecosystem for the last billion years, in everything from mushrooms
to crustaceans. They're not going to clog up Earth's ecosystems.
They work great. And while, today, we can practically guarantee that
yesterday's packaging is going to be here in 10,000 years, what I
want to guarantee is that in 10,000 years, our descendants, our
children's children, will be living happily and in harmony with a
healthy Earth. And I think that can be some really good news.

Thank you.

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