Manufacturing with fungi
A brave new collaboration between Onion Collective and Biohm in a deeply rooted, socially just version of industry.
Using fungus to consume locally wasted resources to grow materials for construction.
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Following the devastating closure of the Wansbrough paper mill in 2015, Onion Collective is pursuing a new, circular and inclusive 21st Century industrial future for the town. This project will be delivered in a ground breaking partnership between a leading bio-tech company (Biohm), a community anchor organisation (Onion), and the Watchet community. It is conceived as a direct response to both the critical local economic context and the climate emergency. Here, our ambition is to become a global player in the biophilic materials revolution, and a pioneer of the next economy - which values people and the environment as much as profit.
When the paper mill closed in 2015, Watchet lost 175 jobs and a major part of our identity and our soul. The mill had been in operation for 250 years. Not only was it a trailblazer for the era of recycling, it was also once an exemplar employer, providing opportunities, nurturing skills and supporting the development of the town. Many of the houses and public buildings in Watchet were built by Wansbrough. But the latter half of the 20th Century saw a shift in economics towards a system that’s only concern was money, and in that context, combined with the loss of the commercial railway and docks, Watchet stopped being a viable location. Without the mill, the only real economic driver here became tourism, with its predominantly low paid and seasonal employment. Combine this with continued local authority funding cuts, and it’s easy to see why places like ours are struggling.
Faced with this spiraling decline, we at Onion Collective decided to take action. With seed funding from the FORE Trust, we began work to identify what a new time, place and community appropriate industry could be – to replace the 175 jobs that were lost, and to reinvigorate the town. We carried out an 18 month-long feasibility study that mapped local assets and sought to understand current opportunities. Through the process we spoke to academics, professionals, local stakeholders and think tanks; we scoured industrial and economic strategies from European to town level. We looked at which industries were doing and which were in decline, and we sought to align this thinking.
At the end of this process we determined bio-based material development (creating products from living or once living materials) would be the best opportunity for the area and for the context we find ourselves in.
It was during this process that we met Biohm, to seek advice on taking this idea forward. Straight away it was apparent that we were both pursuing something greater than a new business, and that if we combined our visions – Biohm’s for a healthy and sustainable built environment, and Onion’s for social justice – we could do something extraordinary.
Together, we are now building a bio-manufacturing demonstration facility on the old paper mill site. To begin with we will work directly with major manufacturers and industry partners, using by-products from their systems as a feedstock for mycelium (the vegetative part, or roots of fungi), and from this growing a high performing, entirely natural insulation product.
Following our combined funding success with Waitrose, Biohm is also carrying out intensive R&D into whether plastics could become the feedstock for the mycelium.
We have a meanwhile lease in place with the papermill site owners to use one of the last remaining buildings there, and are in the process of creating our facility within it. We aim to begin test production in late march. From here we will slowly and sustainably build an industry, ready for the redevelopment of the whole site, at which point we aim to relocate to the main industrial area of the mixed development.
Profits from the facility will be reinvested in further R&D work, facility development and the community – reconnecting people with economics and bringing agency and aspiration. We are working with an amazing community panel to help us develop this thinking, as well as running large scale open community meetings every six months to allow everyone to feed in to progress. This work is also supported by Bob Thust of Practical Governance.
Together, Onion Collective and Biohm believe that this industry for Watchet could become a ground-breaking exemplary demonstration project for a community-aligned circular model of industrial innovation; a new way of doing business that will prove that another – better – way is possible.
The community panel includes
(left to right):
(Sally Lowndes - OC)
Chris Northam (not pictured)
Chris Spink (not pictured)
Oliver Harvey (not pictured)
Open community meetings held on 11 June 2019 and 27 January 2020 were both filmed and are available to watch below.
Biohm’s business and our combined ambitions were featured in the January 2020 Observer Design magazine. The article is available to read here.
This project is funded by the Friends Provident Foundation, Waitrose Plan Plastic and the Power To Change Trust, with initial seed funding from the FORE Trust.
Here is the full unedited filmed public meeting that took place on Monday 27th January 2020, at Knights Templar First School hall, in Watchet.
This is the full unedited film of the meeting that took place six months earlier, on Thursday 11th June 2019 at the Methodist Church School Rooms.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why is OC running this project?
This project was created in response to the closure of the paper mill and with this, the loss of 175 jobs. Worried for the future of the town and our own children’s prospects, we decided to do something about it. So we carried out research into what a new time and place appropriate industry could be, that would align to the current assets of the area and the level of climate emergency. We scoured economic and industrial strategies and spoke to all sorts of people about which industries were doing well and which were in decline, and which we could marry with this place, before deciding that this was the most suitable idea for this place and time, most able to create ethical, sustainable and purposeful jobs in Watchet.
What are the aims of this project?
The aim is to create a new environmentally and socially outstanding industry for Watchet, that generates a high level of jobs that provide career progression and opportunities - including for those that have struggled to enter the job market. We want to prove that a better way of enacting industry is possible, with meaningful and multiple benefits for the local community and the environment.
Why can’t you build a leisure centre instead, as this is such a popular idea with the community?
We at OC would LOVE a leisure centre in the town, but fairly large towns struggle to support them. They are notoriously hard to fund and sustain, so simply would not correspond to the aims of this project.
What is mycelium?
Essentially, the roots of mushrooms. The mushrooms are the fruit.
Mycelium is involved in breaking down organic matter, which makes it very important in nature. It is nature’s great recycler, and is constantly at work under ground in the natural environment.
What is the process for this proposal?
We will collect organic by-products from local companies and feed it to batches of mycelium at a processing plant. The mycelium will consume the organic matter, growing into a new, environmentally positive material in the process. In this way, we will be able to ‘grow’ new products, such as insulation board, which can then be sold for a profit.
We are also researching the potential to use plastic as the food for the mycelium. This research is currently underway in London, with exciting promise.
Are there any other companies doing this work?
Mycology (the study of fungi) and more broadly, bio-based materials, are gaining increased attention. There are a handful of companies around the world currently working on mycelium based materials, so Biohm is a forerunner with a significant presence on the global stage. You may have seen Ecovative’s packaging or Mycoworks leather like materials, for instance. There currently isn’t anyone else working on mycelium-based building insulation materials.
What stage are you at with this project?
We are in the process of building the pilot facility at the moment, which will be housed in the former finishing shed. It should be ready by April, when we will begin test production. We will gradually scale up for there over the next three-five years. At that time, the site owners will be redeveloping the whole site, so all being well, we intend to move seamlessly into the new industrial area of the site at that stage.
Why do you need grant funding?
Watchet is an extraordinarily wonderful place for many reasons, and this makes it hard to believe that we also have some fairly serious problems to solve here - the key one being the local economy. Most big private companies have left the area as the current economic system – that only values money – has stopped them from being viable in a remote place like ours. Grant funding isn’t easy money – it’s both hard won, and comes with significant monitoring and reporting processes. But when we win it, for projects like this, it helps to level the playing field and give Watchet the chance to have some of the opportunities larger economies take for granted.
What’s the job timeframe you’re working towards?
These are the direct job numbers we are aiming for.
Initially: 3-5 production jobs; 1-2 biology /science jobs; 2-4 managerial jobs, working up to
40+ production jobs; 6+ biology / science jobs; 6+ managerial jobs in 2021+.
Beyond this it is hard to say at the moment, but we will also aim to support other entrepreneurial opportunities that may come from the facility.
Who is Biohm and how do they benefit from working with us?
Biohm is a Research and Development-led biotech company that places nature at the heart of its inspiration to revolutionise the way we design, construct, perceive and interact with our built environment. Formed in 2016, Biohm has fast become a world leader in this field, and is committed to creating a better future for both people and the planet. It sees this as an incredible opportunity to create a new kind of industry that directly benefits the local community in multiple ways. Together, Onion Collective and Biohm aim to demonstrate that another, better way of doing business is possible; to make a significant contribution to the fight against climate change and plastic pollution, and to benefit all local people. Social and environmental objectives will be the main driver of this project.
In what ways will it benefit the community?
If the facility is a success, we want that success to be shared with the whole community. How we deliver this is a huge piece of work that we are really only at the beginning of now. Ideas are currently being shared with and by the community panel and at the open community meetings, and we are being supported by social innovation and governance expert, Bob Thust, to continue and develop this thinking.
It’s important to remember that in the first instance, we need to invest in growing and developing the facility and making it a sustainable operation to enable the creation of local jobs, as this is a key aim of the project. Employment is absolutely targeted at local people and we have been, and will continue to be, thinking about how to make that work well here, from apprenticeships to removing barriers to the workplace to supporting career development. We aim to become an exemplar employer.
We also want the benefits to be broader than the facility itself, and again Bob is helping to guide us through this thinking, as we research and learn from other places and examples of industry. We can’t say exactly what this will look like yet, as it will likely be complicated and iterative, as we learn and grow. The intention is that we create a new kind of socially just industry that benefits everyone here in as many well considered ways as possible.
Is the tech safe?
With Biohm, we have explored the potential for any unintended environmental impacts of our project.
The species that we're working with have been both sourced locally and are generally considered global species. These are fungi that already exist in the natural environment around us. Additionally, the work we are doing with fungi to adapt and change their food sources will not be achieved through any chemical or genetic modification. They will not be genetically different to their wild counterparts and therefore there won't be any risk from a form of artificially bred mycelium. Instead, the same species we work with have been welcomed as key leaders in the remediation of ecosystems, including brownfield sites, so there are only benefits, not negative impacts, to working with these fungi.
In the future the facility may be located near to residential housing in a mixed use development if the mill site is developed. As outlined above there are no risks from this process which would have a negative impact on the residential area or the people living there.
Will it smell?
There won’t be any significant smell from the facility, and any that there is will be very localized and natural / non-toxic. The type of smell that comes with mycelium is that of nature – a gentle smell of the forest, for instance. There was some concern over a biscuit smell following the article in the Observer, but that was in reference to Biohm’s other product, ORB, which isn’t being developed here.
How developed is the science?
The science is borrowed from nature, where mycelium is constantly at work, processing organic waste – and it is well understood. The science around plastics is in its early stages.
There is some recent academic research for plastic, and Biohm is working with various universities (Imperial College London, Northumbria University in Newcastle, Queen Mary University London and Utrecht University in the Netherlands) to develop this.
What can be made out of mycelium?
The end product is determined by the kind of organic waste which is used to feed the mycelium and strains of mycelium used, as well as the growing environment. Adjusting these gives different qualities to the end product. Some organisations are experimenting with leather replacement materials as an end product; others are developing furniture and packaging. You may have seen Ikea’s recent announcement that it was going to move to fungus based packaging. The possibilities are actually vast. In the first instance we will be developing insulation board and a kind of MDF replacement material, as these processes are known using agricultural waste. Biohm are currently focused on the construction industry, but the long term possibilities are broader than this.
How long will it last?
In terms of the insulation board we will be creating from the mycelium, we aim for it to last the appropriate amount of years for current building lifespans (15-60 years depending on application - commercial, residential, interior, wall-cavity, etc.), which can be altered through the process. One of the main drivers of the current climate crisis is the unnecessary impulse to create materials that last forever and therefore don't degrade; we will strive to produce better alternatives to petrochemical-based materials that can either be transformed into new materials at end of life or cold-composted down in something as simple as a household compost bin. Biohm are currently undergoing appropriate testing to be able to define how varying processes result in varying lifespans - ideally, much like we see in nature, we aim to create a range of materials that last for the appropriate amount of time for their purpose and use.
How will it benefit the environment?
In this process, organic by-products will be used as the raw resource from which we make natural and high performing building insulation, so we won’t require any extra land use to grow crops. The type of by-products used can be easily changed, so we can shift with what is readily available in the area, replacing the need for petro-chemical plastics or virgin crops for material manufacture.
Within the production facility will be a ‘Biological Energy Recapture’ system, which uses plants to filter carbon dioxide and capture heat and in turn use this to grow the mycelium. This means that waste that would otherwise decompose in nature or in landfill, producing carbon dioxide and toxins that could leak into our ecosystems, can now be absorbed safely by this process.
From very early on we will be sequestering around 2.6tonnes of carbon per month, which is equivalent to around 1,600 trees. Our future target (2021+) is 30 tonnes per month – equivalent to around19,200 trees.
How much material will be processed here?
To begin with, we will only be processing around 13 tonnes per month, and we will gradually scale up from here. The target is 156 tonnes per month by 2021+.
All and any material that we receive will arrive at the site clean and in good condition, and will be treated as a valuable resource at the site. There will be no piles of untreated waste lying around the site; instead it will be treated as a valuable commodity, and collected sparingly. The need to conserve the quality of the material to feed to the mycelium means that it will be kept in a controlled environment, essentially as ‘food’ and stored and prepared accordingly.
Where will the waste come from?
We have lots of opportunities progressing well here, including cardboard, grass cuttings, and potentially trees infected with ash dieback as the feedstock. All would be sourced from local businesses and organisations.
How will it be transported?
In the first instance we will use Luton vans. As we move forward we will be exploring the most sustainable and least disruptive ways to transport materials. This may well be through electric vehicle fleets, but we would also like to explore possibilities for re-establishing rail or sea for freight.
How is it funded and who is it supported by?
The initial feasibility study was funded by the FORE Trust.
Onion Collective capacity to business plan and set up the facility has been funded by the Friends Provident Foundation.
The industrial processing unit has been funded by the Power To Change Trust.
Research into plastic decomposition is funded by Waitrose Plan Plastic
Are there scientific examples to show eating of waste?
With organic materials, you only have to briefly look into the mushroom growing community to see the examples of digesting organic waste. Substrates (food for the mycelium) such as coffee grounds, sugar cane chaff and waste wood chips are all commonly used. As for non-organic waste, such as polymers or plastics, there have been breakthroughs using certain species of fungi to digest plastics, such as cigarette butts, please see video - Radical Mycology: Training a Mushroom to Remediate Cigarette Filters: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fCAX9P50SNU
Below are a number of links to further scientific evidence:
Online Article - not strictly academic but explains things in a much more accessible way:
List of academic papers referenced in the article above as well as others:
Can I feed in to the project?
We welcome local input and ideas throughout this period and will be holding large scale community meetings every six months to enable this. You can also contact us direct at any time with your thoughts – please email email@example.com, or call 01984 633496.