Growing a Replacement for Styrofoam
2013-07-30 0:00

From: Organic Connections

Today a unique com­pany called Ecovative has devel­oped a replace­ment for envi­ron­men­tally threat­en­ing polystyrene—known com­monly as Styrofoam—for an ever-widening range of appli­ca­tions. The incred­i­ble part: the mate­r­ial is grown, not man­u­fac­tured, and actu­ally pro­vides nutri­ents to the land when dis­posed of.

A Mixed Blessing

When poly­styrene was invented, it rev­o­lu­tion­ized the pack­ing indus­try. Extremely light­weight, cheap and capa­ble of being pro­duced in end­less forms, Styrofoam meant mate­ri­als that added almost zero weight to pack­ages yet firmly pro­tected con­tents. It has also found uses in food and bev­er­age con­tain­ers, auto­mo­tive noise reduc­tion com­po­nents, and count­less other areas.

The down­side was and is that Styrofoam has become an eye­sore along high­ways, on beaches and in just about any semi­wild space. Even when it is prop­erly dis­posed of in trash recep­ta­cles, Styrofoam is slow to biode­grade and, like its cousin, plas­tic, seems to remain with us endlessly.

A Grown Replacement

The idea for the nat­ural replace­ment of these envi­ron­men­tally aggra­vat­ing mate­ri­als had its inspi­ra­tion, for Ecovative co-founder Eben Bayer, all the way back in his boy­hood. “I grew up on a fam­ily farm in rural Vermont, where I spent 17 years with hands-on learn­ing about agri­cul­ture,” Bayer told Organic Connections. “One of my respon­si­bil­i­ties grow­ing up was to shovel wood­chips into the gasi­fier that pro­duced maple syrup on our farms. Sometimes there would be clumps stuck together by lit­tle white strands. I later learned that these tena­cious fibers were mycelium—the veg­e­ta­tive growth stage (kind of like the roots) of fungi. The mycelium was self-assembling into a nat­ural glue.”

Bayer never for­got his obser­va­tion. “After farm-life train­ing, I went to RPI [Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute] and got a degree in mechan­i­cal engi­neer­ing and design and inno­va­tion,” Bayer con­tin­ued. “It was the com­bi­na­tion of these two influ­ences that led to the spark that grew into Ecovative.


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