THE FUTURE YOU NEVER IMAGINED IS HERE: MUSHROOMS TO REPLACE PLASTIC AND STYROFOAM PACKAGING

POSTED: 27 Apr 2017 | BY: AMANDA DIROBELLA

The answer to what the future looks like has always been there, growing under a tarp of soggy wood chips, and it all started with a project assigned at Rensselaer Polytechnic University (RPI). Years later, that classroom experiment evolved into Ecovative, the New York-bred and based company responsible for groundbreaking advancements in biomaterial science. Everyone should know Ecovative because they are revolutionizing the courses of the packaging, product, and waste industries. Here is their story.

Photo Credit: Ecovative

About a month ago, upon meeting Ecovative’s Jeff Betts and Kyle Bucklin at the New York State Maker Summit in Albany, Silda (Wall Spitzer), Audra (Herman), and I reacted like three Beatles super groupies meeting George and Ringo for the first time. There were oohh’s and aahh’s. Silda and Audra had been fans for a long time (of Ecovative, not The Beatles, but maybe The Beatles, too), while I was first-time fascinated by the MushroomⓇ Material Easter egg Betts and Bucklin had brought with them. I thought to myself, “What the heck is going on? This is crazy (cool.)”

Photo Credit: Ecovative

Officially incorporated in 2007, Ecovative’s “roots” go back much further. When Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre were students at RPI and searching for a way to contribute to circular economy -- one that is “restorative and regenerative by design” -- Bayer remembered a childhood discovery. At a time long-ago when he was living part-time on a farm in Vermont with his father and was sent to get wood from the woodpile, Bayer noticed that mushrooms growing under a tarped stack of soggy wood chips had rapidly spread and bound with the chips to form a new solid mass. Who says you need a science lab when you have nature?

Mycelium growing on wood chips. Photo Credit: Discover Magazine

After the project, Bayer and McIntyre kept on experimenting, prototyping, and in time, built a team. Through shared passion and work ethic, encouragement and tough love from their late professor, Ecovative, as a company, was born in RPI’s Inventor’s Studio.

Ecovative Co-founders Eben Bayer, pictured left, and Gavin McIntyre, pictured right. Photo Credit: Core77

In the beginning, Ecovative focused on designing and developing protective packaging products like MycoFoam™. Steelcase was the first company to use their technology, after that, Ecovative went on to partner with Dell and Crate & Barrel. It wasn’t long until Ecovative attracted the attention and financial support of government environmental groups, the EPA and NYSERDA to name a few, and philanthropic private investors. On top of those milestones, in 2012 Ecovative licensed their MushroomⓇ Packaging products to Sealed Air Corporation, the company otherwise responsible for Cryovac (plastic) and Bubble Wrap (more plastic), to manufacture and sell at large scale in North America.

Bayer giving a tour of Ecovative’s myco-manufacturing system. Photo Credit: Ecovative

As they grew, Ecovative added more than fifty team members and with their help and dedication, new consumer-driven products to their collection: MycoBoard™ or engineered wood, sans formaldehyde, for furniture and other work surfaces; and Grow It Yourself (GIY) Kits of raw material to experiment or make planters with at home. Ecovative has even teamed up with New York-based furniture company Gunlocke on a seat back design and are working with BioMASON on an accent table. Precisely a goal of Ecovative’s mission, as previously stated regarding at-home experimentation, independent maker Danielle Trofe took the initiative to apply the material to lamps. MycoFoam™, in addition to its role in packaging products, is being used as building insulation. In another interesting application, Ecovative and Patagonia collaborated on  MushroomⓇ Material coated handplanes for bodysurfing. At New York Makers, we are thrilled, as true believers often are, to sell the GIY Kits on our Marketplace.

The Ecovative journey has already reached many parts of the world and allowed the team to be creative with their “nature’s glue.” Bayer spoke about their breakthrough biomaterial science at a TEDGlobal talk in 2010, to an in-person audience as well as one million-plus digital viewers. In 2014, Ecovative and The Living used the material as a building product to create a myco-tower for display at MoMA PS1 as a result of winning the Young Architects Program. There have been several other important appearances and lectures by Bayer — a keynote at the 2016 U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Sustainability Conference and speech at President Obama’s Innovations Summit the same year.

“Hi-Fy” designed by Ecovative and The Living for MoMA PS1. Photo Credit: Ecovative

At this point, you must be wondering, “How does it work? Wouldn’t mushroom products rot or dissolve if wet?” and “Why is using mushrooms so much better for the environment than plastic and petroleum-based products?”

Mycelium (mushroom roots) plus agricultural waste equals an eco-friendly solid now known as MushroomⓇ Material. Ecovative sources agricultural waste from local farms. The waste is sanitized in their facility in Green Island, then introduced to mycelium, bagged and left for a few days to bind. Next, the mixture is separated using industrial equipment, the agricultural waste now purposely diluted with mycelium. This mixture ultimately ends up in yet another “incubating” humidity-controlled phase of the process, allowing the growth of the mycelium to excel with the addition of nutrition (flour), eventually forming a solid mass in roughly five days. Betts says it’s much like “baking with mulch.” Lastly, the materials are dried, as to avoid the unwanted production of spores or mushrooms, and then it can be molded.

Photo Credit: Ecovative

The MushroomⓇ Material is fire retardant and hydrophobic — water will not break it down, but it will, in large amounts, affect the surface in the form of a stain if untreated (just like wood). MushroomⓇ Material will only decompose if you break it into small pieces and introduce it to an accelerate (soil).

And it’s better for the environment because this mycelium-based biomaterial could not only revolutionize North America’s mill industry, but it is also a cost-effective, non-toxic and sustainable replacement for styrofoam and plastic — both ecologically harmful during production, use, and waste disposal.

MycoFoam™ packaging material. Photo Credit: Ecovative

Ecovative has re-inspired the study of biological science — and forever changed that of chemical. Now leading a network of biomaterial innovators, the realm of possibility for Ecovative is growing like mushrooms in moist, oxidized, and temperate places. Genspace, the first-ever-in-the-world biomaterial makespace, opened to the public in Brooklyn 2009. The now-annual conference of the new “Material Age”, Biofabricate, founded by Suzanne Lee, brings together the biomaterial community, once started by Ecovative. Companies like Bolt Threads are using synthetic spider silk, renewable and high-performing material, to manufacture neckties. Adidas has started foregoing thermoplastic for Biosteel, more synthetic spider silk, to make a biodegradable running shoe. Modern Meadow, a biolab in Brooklyn, is growing a eco-replacement for leather.

Biofabricate Conference 2014. Photo Credit: Biofabricate

Every day is Earth Day to the team at Ecovative. Each member is excited about what lies ahead. Betts, who has an architecture background, has stated that “[the GIY program] is great because we can put this material in the hands of as many innovators as possible. [I’d love] for this to be a part of standard curriculum for teaching about alternative materials in design schools.”

Ecovative does, in fact, work with schools, some as influential in the design field as Parsons, to familiarize the future engineers of the world with their sustainable, eco-friendly product. Bayer seconds this philosophy for the company. His vision is “to bring biodesign to everyone and make it possible for students, artists, designers, and inventors all around the world to start working with biology in new ways to grow the products of the future.”

Bayer and his team are currently working on more furniture and accessory prototypes, as well as growing textiles from pure mycelium, similar to the application of synthetic spider silk, to produce high-performance foams and filter materials. Ecovative has also begun to think about how their technology applies to different parts of the world — what agricultural or industrial waste products, such as denim or paper pulp, combined with mushroom spores native to those areas can be used for tailored-made, location-specific biomaterial.

For Bayer, McIntyre, and Ecovative, the belief is that biology trumps chemistry, that nature in it’s purest form provides us with everything we need.

The perfect way to conclude: When Bayer was asked his New York State of Mind, he answered “circular.” His medium -- mushrooms -- are organically, ground-grown, and will someday return, harmoniously, into the earth.