Say goodbye to styrofoam packing peanuts, blocks of foam packing and even polystyrene insulation!

A few weeks ago while in a meeting, someone whispered to me that molded packing material is now being made from mushrooms. Intently focused on the topic at hand, I did not respond to his low key communication, but I did wonder about it a few times over the following weeks. This morning, while I was seeking a trumpet mushroom sauce recipe, guess what popped up – mushroom molded packaging from award winning Ecovative Design of Green Lake, New York!

It turns out this is old news. In 2007 two mechanical engineering graduates, Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre, started Ecovative Design based on a patent pending process they developed for a business class. Inspired by mushroom root balls in the Vermont woods, they used the underside of a dorm bed as an incubator for introducing fungal mycelium to agricultural byproducts. The mycelium grows for 5-10 days transforming  loose agriculture materials like rice hulls or cotton gin trash into an all-natural rigid material with similar properties and costs as synthetic foams.

This sounds like a green win-win! A non-toxic, low-impact natural process that does not use fossil fuels or imported feedstocks!  The firm is getting lots of press attention as well as awards. In October they won an $200,000 research and development grant from Environmental Investment Program Award and a 2009 EPA Grant: “This green start-up … is revolutionizing the way the world makes materials. Ecovative has developed a radical new process for growing materials, without light or electricity, using low value lignocellulosic feedstocks, such as rice husks or cotton burrs. This enables affordable replacements for conventional synthetics, things like foams and plastics, which are normally made from petroleum.”

From the Ecovative website: “Our materials are safe. There are no spores in our process, so there are no allergen concerns, and you never have to worry about mushrooms growing. When you get an EcoCradle™ packaging buffer or Greensulate™ rigid board insulation, it’s just as dead as the 2×4’s in the walls of your house. There are no VOCs, volatile organic compounds, and it’s so safe, you could even eat it (although it’s non-nutritious and doesn’t taste good).”

More from the Ecovative website: “Ecovative’s products can also be modified to for different uses, ranging from structural building blocks to lightweight packaging material, by changing the type of feedstock that’s used and the type of mushroom that’s used to bind it together. The technology is still in its infancy, similar to the development of plastics in the 1950s. Ecovative expects to develop the technology further in the coming years to where it can be used to make thin films, like Cellophane.”

 “(Founder) Bayer believes his process is much more biologically efficient at producing plastics than conventional methods. And by scaling the technology, it can become even more efficient. His small pilot plant is already more energy efficient than a conventional plant. His dream is not to produce large factories and ship the product all over the world, but to develop small local factories, and use local products and local labor to produce materials for local customers.”