Ecovative Design, led by 26-year-old co-founders Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre, is working on bringing down plastic with mushrooms. Indeed, it appears, mushrooms might be the best alternative to polystryrene, the plastic used in Styrofoam cups and packaging peanuts.
Polystyrene’s days are numbered, Bayer and McIntyre say, and if they’re not, they should be. The material is probably a carcinogen, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and it’s terrible for the environment. Americans throw away some 25 billion Styrofoam cups each year, according to the EPA, garbage that will sit in landfills for at least 500 years. Most communities in America have given up trying to recycle it.
It starts with a mash of corn stalks and vegetable husks impregnated with mushroom spores. The fungus eats the plant nutrients, then grows a complex root network that fills the shapes of the molds. The final product is a foam that looks something like a big wafer of nougat candy. It is placed in an oven to stop the spores from growing and to give the material the proper texture, hardness, and elasticity.
The beauty is that these products are grow-to-order and can be easily shaped and given different properties. Moreover, they are 100% biodegradable, without the petroleum or toxicity of polystyrene.
But, while orders are coming in from places like Dell, it might be a while before you’re dumping your mushroom-based packaging peanuts into the compost bin. The major chemical manufactures are well ingrained, and the margins on the mushrooms are not yet good enough to represent a sweeping change to convention. Nevertheless, the products grow themselves without real intervention, and with continued investment, it may not be long before these biodegradable products start appearing in insulation, packaging, and maybe your next cup.
Below, watch Eben Bayer at a 2010 TED talk explaining mushroom plastics: