Instead of those pesky Styrofoam™ pellets that fall all over the place when boxes packed with them are opened, and which last forever when disposed of in landfills because they decompose so very slowly, a green packaging product is now made with mushrooms.
EcoCradle Mushroom® Packaging, developed by Green Island-based Ecovative Design LLC in New York, is one of the mushroom based packaging products. Cleaned agricultural waste products are inoculated with mycelium, the roots of which thread their way through the waste and bond it. While still growing, this mixture is placed into molds for five to ten days where it grows until it fills the
molds. Then heat-treatment and dehydration are used to end any more growth.
Common waste products used are cotton or rice hulls or wheat chaff. The energy creating the product is inherent in the waste instead of the external energy of petroleum. The molded product is organic and biodegradable and useful for composting and mulch, but looks like, and is effective in cushioning the box contents like, Styrofoam.
The company claims that, unlike biomaterials which use edible crop portions, the waste feedstock is not competition for crops consumed by humans. Such parts should be fed to the globally poor and hungry. However, the same resources are used to grow crops whether or not the byproducts are used. There is no way to get the waste without growing the crop in the first place.
Another selling point is that the process works with different feedstocks from agricultural wastes. This means that if corn is a regional product, then corn waste can be used, whereas sugar cane waste might be more readily available in other areas. The differences of the stocks in performance and effectiveness from density, strength, impact-resistance, or in appearances of color and texture are not mentioned.
A big plus for the biomaterial packaging is it requires no water, light, or fertilizer to make and uses 98 percent less energy than the polymerization of Dow’s Styrofoam requires. But the growing process is less automated and most likely less time controlled.
A Grow-It-Yourself package is offered on the Ecovative website. Buy a bag of the GIY Mushroom® Material and create anything that can be imagined. Some examples on the site are unique lamps, teddy bears, balls and even a wedding dress. It makes a great project for school groups.
Ecovative Design is also developing Mushroom Insulation and acoustics, core materials, and aquatic products. The company was founded by Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre as part of a Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute university project in Burt Swersey’s Inventor’s Studio course. For commercial expansion, the company partnered with Sealed Air, and EcoCradle is used by Dell, Puma SE, Stanhope Seta and Steelcase.
In China, Dell is also upcycling wheat straw into shipping boxes for its products. Previously farmers burning the straw were exacerbating the air pollution problem. Dell’s goal is a waste-free packaging stream by 2020 by using 100 percent sustainable materials to create either recyclable or compostable packaging at end of its life cycle.