You buy a microwave or other large appliance and take it out of the box. Chances are, it is protected by bulky blocks of molded polystyrene (best known by the trade name Styrofoam™). Lightweight and sturdy, these blocks have provided excellent protection for your purchase.
What now? Polystyrene is the most difficult of all plastics to recycle. It can only take up valuable landfill space, where it will never break down. Did you know it’s possible to grow comparable packaging from mushrooms?
Mushrooms to the rescue!
A company called Ecovative Design has introduced EcoCradle, a similarly light and strong substance made by mushrooms.
Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre, mechanical engineering and design students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, experimented with fungus “roots” (properly called mycelium) and found a new way to bind insulating particles together.
Upon graduating, they founded Ecovative in 2007 and released EcoCradle as their first product in 2010.
The process begins with seed husks, bits of plant stalks, or other locally grown agricultural refuse, which is cleaned and inoculated with mycelium. Then workers put the mixture into molds and stack them up in a dark place.
In about a week, the fungus grows until every cubic inch of the material becomes a tangle of 8 miles of mycelium. It is in every practical way comparable to molded polystyrene, except, of course, it’s still growing. A process of dehydration and heating takes care of that. Because the process does not use spores and ends by killing the mycelium, the material cannot trigger allergies, and nothing will grow from it.
Everything about a block of EcoCradle is organic. Specifically, that means an end to the standard Styrofoam™ dilemma. Toss the EcoCradle packaging on your compost pile. If you just throw it out, it’s biodegradable and so will break down in a landfill–at least to the extent that anything will.
Even as litter, EcoCradle presents no environmental hazard. Unlike the nearby bottles and cans, it will eventually rot and return to the soil.
So what else is made of molded plastic? Are there other uses for Ecovative products? It has recently started working with Ford to find out. If it can grow materials sufficiently uniform to work on an assembly line, it could replace many of the plastics now used in cars.
Just imagine! Take your car to a body shop to have something replaced, and it will give you the old, broken bumper or whatever for you to use as a colorful mulch or fertilizer or something!
Packaging from mushrooms. Fabric from plastic bottles or milk byproducts. New crude oil from waste plastic.
We’d better hope that lots of imaginative people come up with lots of ideas like these and that their processes become very successful, spawning other similar companies all over the world. Lots of these little startups will to more for a sustainable planet than any large government-subsidized program.