An Eco-Wonder: Packaging Made of Mushrooms

Ecovative Design tells us about their amazing process and product.
(Photo: Marcie Gonzalez/Getty Images)
Feb 17, 2012· 1 MIN READ
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

So long, polystyrene…

For entrepreneurs Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre, business is mushrooming. No, really. It is. Out of a facility in Upstate New York, their company, Ecovative Design, is taking on the packaging industry by combining mushrooms with agricultural waste like rice and buckwheat hulls, and cotton burrs. They are literally growing packaging that’s being used by companies like Steelcase, Dell, and even NOAA, without requiring fossil fuels. And it gets even better: that packaging material, branded as EcoCradle, is fully compostable. No green washing about it. Order wine in the mail? Imagine tossing the packaging into your flower garden and within a matter of months, it’s biodegraded.

“It’s totally unique,” Sam Harrington, spokesman for Ecovative Design tells TakePart. “It’s the first time fungi has been used to make renewable materials.”

So how does the magic work? Here’s a video on the process. The quick version: After cleaning the hulls of mold and insects, the material is then inoculated with mycelium spores and placed into plastic molds in a darkened space, where it’s allowed to grow for five days. That’s right, grow.

“What’s happening is the mycelium is breaking down and looking for more, and as it’s doing this, it’s forming a natural glue that fills in all the gaps,” says Harrington. “The elegant thing here is we’re not just growing the raw materials, we’re actually growing the finished form.”

According to Wired magazine, environmentally friendly packing is a priority for a variety of multinational companies.

“U-Haul claims to have diverted more than 170,000 cubic meters of polystyrene from landfills by switching to peanut packaging made from corn and potato starch. Walmart encourages suppliers to create greener packaging by employing an online scorecard that evaluates some 627,000 items sold in its stores. Pepsi plans to unveil a new bottle in 2012 whose manufacture requires no petroleum; instead, the plastic is fashioned from sugars stored in switch grass, pine bark and corn husks,” writes Chris Raymond.

And applications in the food industry aren’t far behind. Even if you’re ecoconscious, chances are polystyrene is finding its way into your home by way of everyday items like meat trays, coffee cups and egg cartons. And it never goes away. In fact, polystyrene is known to break down into small bits that make their way into the ocean, and end up in sea life ranging from fish to whales to zooplankton.

While there’s not a food-grade version of EcoCradle packaging yet—meaning, you can’t have your meat and eat the tray too—the company is currently prototyping insulated shipping coolers and have recently announced a partnership with packaging giant Sealed Air, makers of Bubble Wrap and Cryovac.