Let’s develop locally grown sustainable mycelium face masks from agricultural industry biomass waste and plastic waste.
California's essential agricultural workers have a massive need for PPE but many are not receiving masks during COVID19 due to supply chain issues, distribution issues, and lack of focus on this vulnerable demographic. How might we leverage the biomass waste in the agricultural industry to grow mycelium face masks in these agricultural communities so that solutions are both locally grown and the R&D of agricultural PPE is anchored in the communities to be served?
Currently, PPE face masks are designed for hospital and health care settings, environments that are very different from working in the fields. If we are to protect our essential agricultural workers, we need to localize R&D and at scale fabrication in these areas so that they are not dependent upon a patchwork of outside suppliers for their PPE. With only 2% of the U.S. population involved in food production, the expertise of what is needed for effective and comfortable PPE face masks in agricultural work environments resides in that 2%, many of whom are never consulted in the design of their gear. Unlike in many other industries, fieldworkers are often expected to bring their own PPE and tools to the fields.
A sustainable solution to this would include agricultural workers as deep collaborators in an integrated localized system of PPE design. The program would include bio material design using local feedstock for mycelium, R&D, and scale manufacturing. A distributed network of portable maker spaces will initially engage fieldworkers in the concept of prototyping their own masks. These explorations will surface the pressure points and specific needs for face masks worn in the fields in both cold and heat, and in working in various crop fields. Additionally, as part of these mobile makerspaces, a mobile biolab will engage fieldworkers in collecting and identifying potential feedstock for mycelium growth. Mycelium will be grown in biomass waste from agricultural fields and the grown mycelium forms will be tested for particle filtration efficiency.
Another overlooked issue in the agricultural landscape is the use of plastics. For example, in the strawberry fields of Salinas and Watsonville, long sheets of black plastic are laid down twice, once before planting to seal in fumigated soil and once after planting as part of the strawberry planting bed. This polyethylene plastic film could be mulched and incorporated into the biomass feedstock for the mycelium to consume as it is grown into mask forms. Scale fabrication of the masks could be developed in or near existing mushroom farms in Monterey County as well as in converted light industrial sites.
This project, from brainstorming, to R&D, testing, and fabrication would involve the community it is serving and will anchor final scale production in that community. In an uncertain future of cascading global health challenges that will also have localized variations of access and equity, we need to explore replicable models that empower local communities to be a part of developing accessible and innovative solutions through their expertise in place and community. This will grow trust in science and science based solutions informed by local perspectives.
A few sample images of early explorations with mycelium masks grown in waste stream feedstock: https://www.instagram.com/p/CDaAtqzjv34/
https://www.instagram.com/p/CCrUwNjDXuA/ and https://www.instagram.com/p/CCCqHD7Dc-V/
Who will take these actions?
In order to execute this idea we would need the involvement of the following stakeholders: Salinas farms, Xinampa Biolab, Digital Nest (a Salinas local youth workforce development non- profit), fieldworkers, consulting from a mycelium expert such as Dr. Rolando Perez, an R&D fablab, Lideres Campesinas (a network of women farmworker leaders), Monterey County Education Migrant Ed, and an at scale production facility.
What are the projected costs?
$5,000 Fieldworker survey and fieldworker prototyping
$5,000 Design prototyping refinement (form factors of mask)
$1,500 Translations into Spanish and Mexican indigenous languages of Triqui, Zapetec, and Mixteco (the most common languages of fieldworkers in Monterey County. Note: Spanish is often a second language).
$3,000 Research and testing of feedstock grown with mycelium.
$5.000 Initial test production run (growing mycelium masks in laser cut cardboard mold forms sealed in beeswax)
Prototype Designing with Fieldworkers
Create and brainstorm on concepts with fieldworkers
Refine patterns and templates and field test
Reach out to labs and set up collaborations
Develop first samples
Test with user base and test filtration test system in a biolab
Reach out to production facilities and ask for possibilities
Develop final design and material
Start small production and user test
Large scale production
About the author(s)
I am an artist and STEAM educator in Northern California who creates workshops that celebrate culture and creativity to empower community voices in conversations centered on identity, science and technology. I develop playful STEAM programs in East San Jose and Salinas, California with museums, after school programs and with the non-profit community biolab Xinampa. I am a co-founded of BioJam https://biojamcamp.weebly.com/ a program that engages teens in bioengineering and biomaterial design as pathways for them to share their learning in their home communities. My artist site: http://www.okadadesign.com/ and my makerspace/biolab site: https://nestmakerspace.weebly.com/