Growing a Replacement for Styrofoam

28 Jul, 2013

Today a unique company called Ecovative has developed a replacement for environmentally threatening polystyrene—known commonly as Styrofoam—for an ever-widening range of applications. The incredible part: the material is grown, not manufactured, and actually provides nutrients to the land when disposed of.

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A Mixed Blessing

When polystyrene was invented, it revolutionized the packing industry. Extremely lightweight, cheap and capable of being produced in endless forms, Styrofoam meant materials that added almost zero weight to packages yet firmly protected contents. It has also found uses in food and beverage containers, automotive noise reduction components, and countless other areas.

The downside was and is that Styrofoam has become an eyesore along highways, on beaches and in just about any semiwild space. Even when it is properly disposed of in trash receptacles, Styrofoam is slow to biodegrade and, like its cousin, plastic, seems to remain with us endlessly.

A Grown Replacement

The idea for the natural replacement of these environmentally aggravating materials had its inspiration, for Ecovative co-founder Eben Bayer, all the way back in his boyhood. “I grew up on a family farm in rural Vermont, where I spent 17 years with hands-on learning about agriculture,” Bayer told Organic Connections. “One of my responsibilities growing up was to shovel woodchips into the gasifier that produced maple syrup on our farms. Sometimes there would be clumps stuck together by little white strands. I later learned that these tenacious fibers were mycelium—the vegetative growth stage (kind of like the roots) of fungi. The mycelium was self-assembling into a natural glue.”

Bayer never forgot his observation. “After farm-life training, I went to RPI [Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute] and got a degree in mechanical engineering and design and innovation,” Bayer continued. “It was the combination of these two influences that led to the spark that grew into Ecovative.

“While at RPI, I proposed the use of mycelium as a binder in an ‘organic insulation.’ Later I teamed up with my good friend and classmate Gavin McIntyre. We were both fascinated by how fast mushrooms could grow and the unique mechanical properties of these untapped renewable materials. During a class taught by Burt Swersey called Inventors Studio, we worked on this process for binding together insulating particles, creating some remarkable materials that could replace Styrofoam. Rather than just decreasing the environmental impact of conventional polystyrene foams, this invention created a whole new paradigm where composite materials are literally grown, harnessing the incredible efficiency of nature. After graduating, Burt convinced us that we had to quit our jobs and start a company to continue to develop this revolutionary technology.”

Heeding their teacher’s advice, Bayer and McIntyre went directly on to form Ecovative and carry on their work.

“Six years later, Ecovative is now a team of about 60 people supporting cutting-edge research and delivering whole solutions to Fortune 500 customers,” Bayer said.

Ever-Widening Applications

With its natural materials, Ecovative is now making inroads into numerous industries. “We approach companies currently using Styrofoam, with a very simple value proposition: same performance, same price point, drastically better environmental impact,” said Bayer.

Packaging, of course, is a prime candidate. “Thousands of plastic foam packaging parts are being replaced today by our Restore Mushroom Packaging, which is now being sold by our partner, Sealed Air,” Bayer explained. “This protective packaging material is formed into custom-engineered shapes to protect everything from computer equipment to furniture. When customers get a package that utilizes Mushroom Packaging, they can compost the packaging at home or have it sent to an industrial composting facility. While plastic foams will last forever in a landfill, Mushroom Packaging will return nutrients to the soil.”

A second industry ripe for change is building materials. “We are now taking preorders for the live Mushroom Insulation that our Mushroom Tiny House was made out of (mushroomtinyhouse.com), and also kits so you can build your own,” Bayer said. “We’ve had building science PhDs suggest that Mushroom Insulation has the promise of being ‘the greenest insulation ever,’ so it’s something we’re very excited about.

“We’re developing rigid board insulation as well as structural insulating panels (SIPs), insulated sheathing, and acoustic panels. These offer comparable performance, in addition to some serious environmental and health and safety benefits. Aside from being rapidly renewable, these materials achieve a Class A fire rating without any chemical fire retardants, and have low to no VOC emissions. Unlike many types of insulation, you don’t need a face mask or gloves to install it.”

Automotive is another industry and heavy user of polystyrene foam products. Here, too, Ecovative is working. “The Myco Foam that we’ve created for packaging and insulation has a lot of potential in cars for acoustic insulation, impact absorption and trunk liners,” Bayer pointed out. “We’re also developing specialty materials for electric vehicles.

“In some applications, like automotive, we have unique properties that make the material not only a safer alternative to plastics but one that actually performs better. Fire resistance and dielectric strength are two examples.”

Ecovative is capable of competing with the big boys in terms of production. “We’re continuing to expand and we’re bringing more plants online to keep up with demand,” said Bayer.

Sky’s the Limit

Through its ongoing research, Ecovative promises to have an extremely healthy, broad impact across its spectrum of uses.

“We aim to use bioadaptation to develop environmentally responsible materials to replace harmful synthetics anywhere we can,” Bayer concluded. “We’ve proven this technology with a plastic foam replacement, and now we’re expanding into denser materials that can replace engineered wood like fiberboard, without the need for carcinogenic urea-formaldehyde adhesives.

“Looking farther into the future, we’ve got some bold ideas for ‘smart’ materials for circuitry and even medical implants, which leverage the self-assembling nature of mycelium along with its biocompatible characteristics. The first application for this is something along the lines of mycelium-based ‘bones,’ custom molded into the exact shape your body needs—a hip or knee, for example.”

For more information, please visit www.ecovativedesign.com.

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