packaging

Materials Science 101: Molding Mushrooms

By Dustin Renwick

Compostable packing for shipping wineYour new TV or fancy bottle of wine came in a cardboard box that can be recycled, but thanks to a small, eco-friendly business, those white packing pieces that cushion and protect consumer goods inside boxes could go a step further in the product life cycle.

Ecovative, located in New York, wants you to throw the packaging in your compost pile.

Typically, those pieces are made of polystyrene foam, which hangs around in landfills for hundreds of years after it’s been discarded. Ecovative can replace that foam with another white material: mycelium.

Fungi absorb nutrients with their mycelia. Think of them as the roots of a mushroom.

In a five-day process, Ecovative can grow mycelia into all-natural packaging. Better yet, mycelia don’t need water or light to curl and coil into a dense, customizable form that packs eight miles of fibers into each cubic inch of material.

The other major selling point for the mushroom-based materials is that they grow in agricultural waste streams that can be adapted to regional sources. Corn stalks can be used in the Midwest, but a factory in China could use castoffs from rice production. The mycelia grows throughout the organic mass until the mold is filled, and then Ecovative heats the material to stop growth.

The company won an EPA Phase I Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant in 2009, two years after co-founders Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre started out. It is also one of the new SBIR awardees announced today, each another potential success story. (Read Ecovative’s winning research proposal: Growth of a Fungal Biopolymer to Displace Common Synthetic Polymers and Exotic Wood.)

“EPA was first to take the leap and validate this tech,” said McIntyre, the company’s chief scientist.

“The EPA SBIR was really critical for our early stage of development for several reasons. One of the most important was the peer-reviewed validation. And the funding really supported early-stage efforts in moving from the lab bench to a commercially viable prototype production line.”

Bayer, the company’s CEO, recently told The New Yorker that Ecovative aspires to be the new Dow or Dupont. McIntyre said those companies represent ubiquity for consumer products.

“We’d like to be the same,” he said. “We want to have the broadest impact possible in terms of providing environmentally friendly solutions.”

McIntyre and Bayer started small, but their company now employs 54 full-time workers overseeing projects such as new construction materials, opportunities in the automotive market, and a way to replace common plastics in packaging. The work has attracted more EPA SBIR contracts and other awards.

In May, the Small Business Administration recognized Ecovative with the Tibbetts Award, which highlights the best SBIR projects each year. The three criteria for the Tibbetts are technical innovation, business impact and broader social and economic benefit.

Mushroom materials are innovative, durable alternatives to products we often use but rarely think about. In fact, there’s a chance parts of your next house might be grown instead of fabricated or built, adding a new twist to living in harmony with nature.

About the author: Dustin Renwick works as part of the innovation team in the EPA Office of Research and Development.

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Super Mommy vs. Toy Packaging

By Sarah White

“Open it please.” Ugh! Those dreaded words again.

My son looks up at me, his eyes wide with anticipation as he hands to me the object of his desire- a newly bought action figure complete with accessories. The toy is entombed in layers of cardboard, plastic and sadistic twisty things.

“Okay, okay” I tell him, “but I’ll need my tools. Go get me the scissors.”

As I contemplate my plan of attack, my son trundles off to look for the scissors. He returns and like an eager apprentice, he hovers beside me eager to assist. In my 8-year-old son’s eyes I am on par with his super heroes. He has complete faith in my mommy super power abilities.

I start with surgical precision, cutting the top layer open. I pull back the cardboard under which is another tight layer of plastic. I see the toy figure smugly beaming out at me. More cutting but the plastic is thick and hard to cut. I reach for a knife from the drawer and begin to pry. My finger catches the edge of plastic.

“Dang it, ouch! band-aid! Go get mommy a band-aid.”

I tear away the plastic, finally ripping it open only to reveal dozens of tightly wound twisties. Drat! Evil, hideous things those twisties. I make a mental note—next time we go toy shopping, we’re buying from a thrift store.

As I curse the toy, I am not thinking of the trees being felled at a rate of 100 acres per minute to box this plaything. I am not concerned with statistics about the 250,000 plastic bottles dumped each hour in this country, making up nearly 50 percent of recyclable waste in the dumps, waste that takes close to forever to decompose. Even the fact that plastic thrown into the sea kills and destroys sea life at an estimated 1,000,000 sea creatures per year fades into significance. I am too busy combating the twisties.

Is it my imagination or is that toy figure mocking me. Mom vs. toy packaging.

I slowly begin to untwist the ties finally emancipating my son’s beloved action figure. My son is thrilled. I take comfort in that in his youthful eyes I still wear a cape and a suit with a big “M” on the chest. One day he’ll realize Superheroes are just toys and I am just a mommy.

About the author: Sarah White is a community involvement coordinator in EPA New England’s Superfund Program.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Super Power

reusable shopping bagI love to shop! But did you know that shopping feeds my super power?   No joke and you have this super power too.  How do you activate your hidden super power?  By the choices you make when shopping.

Teen consumers are an important part of the U.S. economy.  You purchase things based on current trends that later filter into the mainstream. So like me, you have the power to influence manufacturers to make their products greener and to influence how other consumers (a.k.a. your friends) shop.

How?  Here are some ways I fuel my environmental super power.  I purchase items that use less or no polystyrene or plastic packaging for their product.  Did you know that since 1990 several major fast food restaurants have stopped using Styrofoam food containers all because of super powered people like me?!  I even bring my own reusable plastic container when I eat out to take home any leftovers.   I also purchase CDs and video games packaged in recycled paper jackets rather than plastic jewel cases.  POW!  Another super power blow to plastics. I make the choice to use cloth bags to carry my “treasures” home rather than using plastic sacks that end up in our oceans or landfills. BAM!  Finally, retro is in so when I need a new look I go to my local second-hand store to purchase gently used clothing and other items for my home or yard. Reusable power assemble!

Everybody gets thirsty when they are shopping.  Make the choice to select a beverage from a vending machine packaged in aluminum cans rather than in plastic.  Recycling aluminum cans saves 95% of the energy used to make aluminum cans from virgin ore.

Seriously, the choices you make in purchasing products are a never-ending series of votes for or against the environment.  Super power consumers like you can make or break a product.  Yeah, I hear you, buying free trade items or stuff in recyclable containers might cost a little bit more, but the “pay it now or pay later“ premise comes into play. So do the right thing, buy the product not the packaging.

What have you purchased lately that was packaged “greener”?  Share your thoughts.

Denise Scribner has been teaching about environmental issues for over 35 years.   For her innovative approaches to teaching to help her students become environmentally aware citizens, she won the 2012 Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators. Her high school was also one of the first 78 schools across the USA to be named a Green Ribbon School in 2012.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Wrap It Up…Not So Fast!

About the author: Lina Younes has been working for EPA since 2002 and chairs EPA’s Multilingual Communications Task Force. Prior to joining EPA, she was the Washington bureau chief for two Puerto Rican newspapers and she has worked for several government agencies.

In our everyday day lives, we pride ourselves in doing everything faster, better, and more efficiently. However what has become convenient has also resulted in some unforeseen costs. In this case, I’m thinking about fast food and, especially, fast food packaging.

Whether at work or play, we encourage everyone to eat their food in reusable utensils and if possible aim for a waste free lunch. However, the truth is having a sit down meal at home is not always possible. When it comes to eating, frequently we just look for the nearest fast food restaurant, carryout or drive thru. And then we dispose of the waste in the nearest trash can. While I can see using our reusable mugs at the local coffee shop, taking reusable plates to a drive thru may not be practical for most people.

Some might have noticed that not so long ago, most of the common fast food chains used polystyrene foam (AKA Styrofoam) and non-environmentally friendly packaging to serve and wrap food and beverages. In recent years, responding to popular pressure, some companies are adopting waste reduction measures and using biodegradable packaging. More and more companies are actively engaged in the redesign of sustainable packaging. In fact, EPA is a founding member of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, a group of industry professionals formed in 2004. This broad coalition goes beyond the food packing industry. It provides a framework for collaborating on various sustainable packaging issues in order to reduce the environmental footprint of packaging. Bear in mind that the environmental impacts of packaging go beyond what enters the waste stream. There are energy impacts and associated greenhouse gas emissions at each stage of the life cycle of each product from extraction and acquisition of raw materials, manufacturing of raw materials into products, the actual product used by consumers and ultimately, product disposal.

EPA’s WasteWise partnership program also highlights success stories in the areas of food processing and packaging as well as the beverage industry.

So, if you’re seeking more information on the environmental sustainability techniques used by your favorite restaurant or nearest fast food establishment, you can visit Earth911.com for a Restaurant Report Card. Above all—get involved. You can make a difference in encouraging many industries and the general public to become more environmentally sustainable.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.