Nature’s polymer for packaging, insulation, and more
Mushrooms and other fungi, having been only recently domesticated in comparison to plants and animals, have the potential to revolutionize many facets of our modern lives. From increasing culinary acceptance, advances in health and medicine, to helping heal the earth using various mycorestoration strategies such as mycoforestry, mycoremediation, and mycopesticides, as well as increasing crop viability and yields in a time of changing and uncertain climate, we have barely scratched the surface of the fungal kingdom’s potential. A company in New York, the brainchild of two college students, is helping build the foundation of this potential and is poised to revolutionize the world of plastics.
Styrofoam, or extruded polystyrene, was patented by Dow Chemical in 1944 and became ubiquitous in packaging, insulation, flotation, construction, and more, and has become a scourge of the environment and of our finite resources. Not only does Styrofoam (and other plastics) take tremendous amounts of fossil fuels and energy to produce but the EPA estimates that Styrofoam comprises 25% of the waste in our landfills by volume. Styrofoam wreaks even more havoc on our environment; as a pollutant, Styrofoam and other plastics can take thousands of years to decompose, clog our streams and rivers, and foul our oceans. Huge ‘islands’ of plastic have even been found in most all of the Earth’s oceans, trapped by circulatory currents that prevent the waste from escaping. Styrofoam and other plastics are consumed by animals that mistake it for food. Chemical components of plastics are even found in our bodies and those of our children. As such it is abundantly clear that Styrofoam has significant impacts on us and our planet; from the consumption of dwindling fossil fuels, to ecological and biological pollution.
With that in mind, the revolutionary idea that sprouted Ecovative Design is a gamechanger. Using nonfood agricultural byproducts such as cornstalk, two students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute developed the idea of producing an easily compostable material that could replace Styrofoam in a wide range of applications. The agricultural waste or “feedstock” is chopped up, sterilized, and inoculated with mycelium (the threadlike vegetative part of a fungus), then pressed into a preformed mold. Over the course of a few days the mycelium colonizes the agricultural waste taking the shape of the desired form. When fully colonized, the form is heated to stop growth, cooled, and then used in a wide variety of applications. Even some Fortune 500 companies have seized on the idea to make their companies and products more environmentally sound at little to no additional expense. Some forms are designed for use as insulation, others for shipping electronics, and others for shipping wine bottles; the potential applications are almost endless, and can be used almost any way that Styrofoam can. The mycelium forms are fire, moisture, and impact resistant and in its most important difference from Styrofoam, fully compostable! In the near future we may see widespread use of mycelium products, “Nature’s Polymer.”
Mycelium electrical circuits? No longer so far-fetched.
For more information visit ecovativedesign.com or watch TED talks by one of the Ecovative founders Eben Bayer, Are Mushrooms the New Plastic?, and another by Paul Stamets, 6 Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World