Are Mushrooms the new Styrofoam™?

By Gavin McIntyre

I started my career in advanced biomaterials after recognizing a problem that faces anyone who purchases items on the Internet, from frozen food to consumer electronics. Once you open your package, what do you do with all the bulky foam that’s not easily recycled?

Plastics and foams are ubiquitous in our everyday lives and serve a valuable role in many industries. But these materials are predominately derived from fossil fuels and most are not compostable. This creates a real problem when these materials are used in short-term applications like packaging, where their useful life lasts months at best. This is a concern for many municipalities since non-compostable synthetics continue to accumulate and fill landfills beyond their capacity.

Our goal was to develop compostable materials that are not derived from fossil fuels and do not require an exorbitant amount of energy to manufacture. In seeking to design an alternative, we took advantage of domestic waste streams that are abundant and rapidly renewable. These raw materials fit into nature’s recycling system and are beneficial to the environment once their useful lifecycle is complete.

Today our biomaterials replace the plastic foams used in the protective packaging and construction industries. Our technology uses the vegetative tissue from mushrooms, a vast network of unicellular filaments known as mycelium, as a natural adhesive to bind agricultural byproducts into a robust, foam-like material.

Our products are grown to the desired shape in just five days, and all the energy for growing the fungus comes from the agricultural waste. But most importantly these materials are safe (styrene was recently deemed a carcinogen), entirely home compostable, and comparable in cost to plastic foams.

Compostable packing for wine bottles.

A friend of mine, Eben Bayer, and I started Ecovative in 2007 right out of college to challenge this synthetic material paradigm. We needed a lot of support to get our nascent technology off the lab bench and into the market place. As two mechanical engineers, we first solicited the help of mycologist (mushroom biologist) Sue Van Hook.

We applied for an EPA Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) grant to fund our research, which was awarded in early 2009. This Phase 1 award allowed us to optimize fungal strains and agricultural wastes necessary to approach potential customers. Today we operate two manufacturing facilities in upstate New York with 70 employees.  We will be opening two additional facilities in the U.S. over the next two years with a commercial partner, adding many new jobs to the economy. Everyday we come to work we leave satisfied that the products we literally grow offer a “green” alternative for packaging.

So hopefully next time you unbox you new computer you can put the packaging in your garden rather than sending it off to a landfill.

About the Author: Gavin McIntyre was the Principle Investigator under a series of Small Business Innovative Research grants awarded by the US EPA between 2009 and 2012. McIntyre’s research focuses on the development of novel materials and processes that emulate nature using agricultural byproducts and fungal mycelium to provide low cost alternatives to synthetics such as plastics.

And for more information on how EPA supports research for innovative environmental solutions and “green” jobs, read: Investing in a Sustainable Future.