Functional Fungi

A Chicago entrepreneur is using fungi to detoxify asphalt waste and transform it into a potentially valuable resource.

Happy Earth Day!

It’s that time of year again when Midwesterners’ home improvement project focus turns to the outdoors. Roofing projects are common in the spring and summer. But they generate a lot of waste, to the tune of more than 11 million tons of waste asphalt shingles each year in the U.S., according to EPA estimates.

Asphalt products like shingles are a disposal challenge because of their toxic components, and most of them end up in landfills or incinerators. Joanne Rodriguez knew about the reuse and disposal challenges from her 30 years in the construction product manufacturing space. Although industry collaboratives exist to reduce asphalt shingle waste and find viable recycling options, “they could only recoup about  2 million tons” of the more than 11 million tons generated, she explained. “That wasn’t making a dent.”

A few years ago, she started a business focused on dexotifying construction and demolition waste and reducing how much ends up in landfills. Around the same time, Rodriguez had been taking a permaculture design class, which led her to mycology: the study of fungi. She learned that fungi can detoxify other materials they grow on. The root structure, or mycelial network, is the powerhouse behind the concept. She thought fungi might hold the key to detoxifying asphalt material.

“They are able to grow across asphalt-based material — they like it and actually eat it up,” she said. “Why could we not divert materials from landfill and/or make them non-toxic?”

So she launched Mycocyle, a startup based in the Chicago suburb of Bolingbrook, and brought on a mycologist — the only other employee so far — to collaborate on fungi-based solutions to detoxify construction and demolition waste. “We’ve created formulations that give them the best growing opportunity to process the toxins,” she said. They’re examining variables such as heat, water, different species of fungi, and different food sources. The initial 16-20 potentially viable species has been whittled down to three.

Many of the trials are showing the waste material to be fully remediated in seven to 10 days, and none have taken more than a month so far. Mycocycle is working to ensure the results from the smaller trials will be consistent on a larger scale. The testing takes place in a laboratory under controlled conditions, and Rodriguez hopes to deliver a scaled model for a commercial offering soon.

Mycocycle aims to reuse both the fungi and the detoxified material for manufacturing other products. This regenerative approach would reduce the need to source new raw materials to make the products as well as diverting waste from landfills.

“If we could start to use this waste stream as a resource, then not only are we doing good by the environment to take the toxins out of landfill, air, and water, but we’re also able to lower our carbon footprint by reusing the materials to manufacture new products,” Rodriguez said.

Earlier this year, Mycocyle had positive momentum and Rodriguez met with a primary client set: construction and demolition waste material handlers. “They’re realizing the longevity of operating their landfills is quickly disappearing. They’re running out of space and regulation is dictating that they figure out new ways to treat toxic waste,” she said. The plan is to integrate Mycocycle’s technology with C&D waste handlers’ operations to create greater end-use opportunities: In addition to saving landfill space, the technology could provide a revenue stream for clients who sell the end product as a resource.

So far, Mycocycle has one customer in the manufacturing industry and is in negotiations with a waste processor. Other C&D waste handlers have expressed interest, but Rodriguez worries her plan to secure additional funding and scale up this year might be put on pause because of the pandemic.

Rodriguez has experienced challenges over the past 30 years being a woman in a male-dominated field. She’s using her work with Mycocycle to increase exposure and drive greater diversity among sustainability-focused tech businesses.

“I think if more of us come together and try to drive solutions around climate equity, especially female founders and people of color, we’re really starting to change the landscape of what this looks like. … People will step out of their comfort zones and try something new if they see other people like them doing it,” she said.

Do you know other Midwest businesses that see opportunity in a waste stream? Let me know so I can highlight them in a future newsletter. Email or connect on Twitter @centereddottech to share ideas of who to highlight.



Other stories we’re watching:

  • As public concerns grow about the use of facial recognition technology, a Chicago entrepreneur is making eyeglasses to protect people’s privacy. Reflectacles, as the product is called, look like standard glasses in person, but when viewed on security cameras they obscure the wearer’s face and make it look like a shining orb. (Chicago Tribune)
  • Chicago-based startup Nature Fynd, an animal-free edible protein creator, is named among companies joining the ranks of “climate tech,” an emerging moniker that is similar to cleantech but directly links technology solutions to the climate change crisis. (GreenBiz)
  • School systems across the country are dealing with how to teach students who do not have equal access to technology and reliable internet service. Indianapolis Public Schools will start using an older, yet more widespread, technology to teach students: television. (WFYI)

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