Sometimes the solutions to our problems are sitting right in front of us. Or in this case, the solution is sitting in forests or on our pizzas.
It’s no secret the roofing industry has a problem with waste management, specifically in the asphalt shingle industry. Approximately 13 million tons of asphalt waste is generated each year, and only 2 million of that is reused in projects like recycled asphalt paving. That leaves 11 million tons to be tossed into landfills or be incinerated, neither of which is good for the environment.
The desire to recycle may be there, but it’s difficult to recycle asphalt products due to the harmful chemicals found in them. That’s where Mycocycle steps in, proposing a unique solution that harnesses the natural ability of mushrooms to break down these chemicals and potentially create low-emission byproducts.
“There’s just a lot of opportunity here,” said Joanne Rodriguez, founder and CEO of Mycocycle. “We’re hoping to be the voice of reason so the roof manufacturers don’t feel like they’re getting beat up by an environmentalist, but that it’s coming from somebody who understands empirically what the issues are and how do we help them maintain the relevance in manufacturing with these products by taking responsibility.”
Rodriguez understands the need to reduce waste in the roofing industry better than most. Prior to Mycocycle, she worked for 30 years in the construction products industry, 16 of which was spent at Tremco, where she was the company’s first female regional sales manager. To pursue her passion for sustainability, she took on the company’s director of sustainable and strategic initiatives role.
Rodriguez is also a LEED Accredited Professional through the U.S. Green Building Council, holds a professional certificate from Cornell University in Climate Change Communications, and is a Certified Permaculture Designer. During her career, she has served on boards with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and was a subject matter expert at United Nations meetings, the Clinton Global Initiative and Resilient Cities Summits.
“In the material manufacturing space, there’s about a 10-12% waste factor,” she said. “For asphalt-based manufacturers, many of them are sending that waste to landfill, and they don’t want to do it, but that’s what they have to do.”
In June 2017, Rodriguez left to pursue her passion for sustainability and took a course in permaculture design. It was here she learned about the environmental benefits fungi could provide due to their ability to produce enzymes that degrade both natural and man-made chemicals. She founded Mycocycle in 2018.
Through her studies, she met Peter McCoy, founder and owner of Radical Mycology Project and author of “Radical Mycology,” a leading reference source for mycologists. Rodriguez shared her idea on using fungi to de-toxify roofing waste, and since then, McCoy became the chief mycologist and science advisor for Mycocycle.
In testing its methods, Mycocycle found it is able to reduce the amount of toxins in asphalt-based materials by 98%.
“It’s taking those applications and saying ‘Okay, how do we now apply this to this growing waste issue that we have,’ because construction and demolition is the fourth largest waste stream,” she said.
Making Mushrooms Work
Known as bioremediation, Mycocycle’s process works by having mushrooms remove toxins from asphalt materials. Specifically, Mycocycle uses the mycelium — the root-like, vegetative part of a fungus often hidden underground — to break down the asphalt materials much like they would a fallen tree in a forest.
In the roofing industry, Mycocycle would break down asphalt shingles, asphalt rolled goods, and may eventually tackle co-mingled materials like fiber boards. There is an opportunity to try to break down wood products and gypsum as well as it expand its treatments.
The whole process takes roughly four weeks, far shorter than the 400 years it takes to break down in a landfill. Once broken down, the materials create a renewable byproduct that can contribute to fire and water resistance as well as flexibility and impact resistance. Prior studies conducted on mycelium-based products have been shown to possess these qualities.
Rodriguez said these materials could be used in many different ways, and sees the potential for creating reinforcing fabric, insulation products or even packaging material.
“You’re able to stop the growth, so we’re not entering mold into buildings,” she said with a laugh.
While the idea of mushrooms and fungi remediating harmful chemicals is not new — nature has been doing it long before humans studied them — using them to de-risk building and roofing waste and turning it into reusable products is novel.
“There are some companies globally that are actively developing building products out of mycelium, but they’re just not doing it from waste,” Rodriguez said. “It’s a very hot industry because the structure of that root can replace a lot of plastic base on chemicals.”
By diverting waste from landfills, Mycocycle’s process could create a circular economy. Waste would be de-risked and transformed into new products, which can then be recycled to start the process over. This not only creates renewable resources, but also contributes to combatting global warming.
Mycocycle has earned multiple accolades for its innovations. In 2020 alone, it received recognition from the Global Health and Pharma Magazine for its 2020 Biotechnology Awards; was a finalist in FastCompany’s 2020 “World Changing Ideas Award” issue—General Excellence, Experimental, and World Changing Idea; and was selected as an Early Stage Company to present at the 25th Annual National Renewable Energy Labs Industry Growth Forum in April.
The hope is to scale the process up — essentially taking a process that happens in a lab and expanding it to the size of a Dumpster — and create a complete deliverable service in the next year. In five years, the goal is to be treating 1.5 million tons of waste annually.
Mycocycle isn’t looking to upend the waste management industry, but instead work directly with asphalt manufacturers, recyclers and waste management businesses to dovetail their current processes and bring more business to them. Mycocycle is a member of the Roofing Technology Think Tank as well as the End Use Committee for the Construction & Demolition Recycling Association.
“I would love more roofing manufacturers at the table,” she said. “I have a pretty good idea from what the contractors need, and I am in discussion with some of the major manufacturers.”
Much like everything else, Mycocycle felt the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused its scale up to stall. Due to the pandemic, Mycocycle started a crowdfunding campaign on StartEngine to garner investments, and is seeking grants with the help of the University of Minnesota.
Rodriguez said the equity crowdfund allows people to have a stake in the innovation, and hopes others in the roofing industry will work toward a cleaner future with Mycocycle.
“We’re going to continue to manufacture with those materials most likely, but we have a waste issue,” she said. “If we can start to look at it as a resource and innovate around it, we can really change the dynamic of the roofing industry in total, including being able to break down PVCs at the end of their use.”