Mushrooms may be on the rise to replace the ubiquitous plastic foams found in packaging.
That’s the hope of two young environmental entrepreneurs, Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre. The idea for their new packaging material -- made from mycelium, the often hidden roots of mushrooms -- came from the fungi growing under their dorm room beds. (Their mothers must be proud.) While the shrooms were there on purpose, for a class assignment at Rensselaer Polytechnical Institute, I still imagine the college boys pleading, "No, Ma, don't touch those smelly socks or anything else that seems to be composting under the bed. It's important."
And sure enough, it was. Six years later, their company Ecovative Designs is producing materials from mycelium and agricultural byproducts that can be shaped like plastics to cushion everything from electronics to wine. The company is also testing them for use in car bumpers, roofing materials, furniture, footwear, and more.
With customers like Dell and Steelcase, Ecovative Designs has more than a toehold in the rapidly expanding market for eco-friendly alternatives to plastic foams. Their product, called EcoCradle Mushroom Packaging, performs as well as polystyrene, but is totally natural, non-toxic, and 100 percent compostable. It breaks down in six to nine months -- a stark contrast to polystyrene. This plastic counterpart is so stable that it takes decades to hundreds of years to deteriorate in the environment, making it a major component of landfills and plastic debris in the ocean, where it becomes toxic to marine life.
EcoCradle packaging also scores well on the energy front. Because of mycelium’s intrinsic ability to assemble lignin and cellulose into strong bio-composites, the EcoCradle material can grow without a lot of heat, pressure, or energy inputs. Consequently, making it needs significantly less energy than manufacturing synthetic foams. Additionally, the mushroom material distinguishes itself from other bio-plastics, because it doesn't rely on food or fuel crops as a feedstock. Instead, EcoCradle uses only inedible crops to create their products.
On top of all that, what I admire about Ecovative Designs is the founders' vision to create a model "local manufacturing" business. As Bayer explains in a TED Talk, Ecovative Designs hopes to franchise or license their manufacturing system and customize it to locally sourced feedstock. For instance, in China, one might use a rice husk or a cottonseed shell, but someone in Europe or North America might use buckwheat or oat hulls. According to their website, even a small company, one that processes and packages as few as 10 orders a day, might see a financial advantage in establishing a packaging facility of their own, using all local raw materials.
As the mom of two 20-something boys, I admit Bayer and McIntyre had me with the whole fungus-under-the-bed thing. But I'm also a sucker for anything I can compost. And I’m nearly giddy at the thought of composting something ecologically benign that might someday squeeze polystyrene out of the market.
I'm going to write the wine club I joined recently to tell them about EcoCradle. And my husband and I are looking to buy a new printer. So I might check to see if they know about mushroom packaging, too. Sound silly? It's not. You'd be surprised at how quickly companies respond to their customers’ suggestions, particularly when such a positive idea like this pops up.
Image: Eneas De Troya