Americans throw out 19 billion pounds of Styrofoam packing peanuts each year, which sit in landfills for half a millenium. One company in upstate New York is producing alternative packing material out of sustainable ingredients. Host Bruce Gellerman talks to Gavin McIntyre, chief scientist at Ecovative Design, about how to turn mushrooms and agricultural waste into earth-friendly packaging material.
GELLERMAN: Here’s a familiar sound:
[BUBBLE WRAP POPPING]
GELLERMAN: Bubble wrap is fun to pop. And each year we use enough of it to protect stuff being shipped to stretch to the moon and back. That’s lot of crackle and pop…
GELELRMAN: and there’s a lot of snap from Styrofoam too.
GELLERMAN: We go through 19 billion pounds of Styrofoam a year, and that’s just from the peanut–shaped, packing stuff. Bubble wrap and Styrofoam are lightweight and cheap but both are made from petroleum, and once used, they often wind up in landfills forever. That’s where the company Ecovative Deisgn comes in. The firm, based in Green Island New York, has cooked up a unique product that gets to the root of the problem. Gavin McIntyre is the company co-founder, and chief scientist.
MCINTYRE: We've actually looked to nature to grow the next generation of materials using a living fungus, what’s called a fungal mycelium, which you can think of as mushroom roots, to bind the waste particles together and what you're left with is a material that feels and performs just like foam, but it's 100 percent compostable in your backyard.
GELLERMAN: So, what kind of mushrooms are you using?
MCINTYRE: We use some common medicinal mushrooms that you’d find in Asia, for example, but we only use the mushroom roots, we never actually use the mushroom itself. There are no spores ever in our process.
GELLERMAN: So how did you come up with the idea?
MCINTYRE: The observation came from just examining mycelium growing on woodchips, and these woodchips were bound together quite nicely, and the concept was, okay, you know, these are really growing into these materials, digesting them, but they’re also serving as an adhesive.
GELLERMAN: Well, you sent us a couple of samples here and…
[TAPS THE FOAM]
GELLERMAN: I’ve got one right here. Yeah, it feels like foam. It’s light.
GELLERMAN: It’s kind of brownish white, it’s got all these kinds of hairs growing on it (laughs) and it smells woodsy.
MCINTYRE: Yeah, that’s a really accurate description of the material because what you’ll see in there are that those little fibers, or particles, are actual agricultural waste. What we do is we source all of our raw materials from within 500 miles of our manufacturing facilities and these are waste streams that can’t be fed to animals, they can’t be burned for energy use, and they just lay fallow in the field.
GELLERMAN: So what’s that stuff that you get from the field?
MCINTYRE: So, today we use things such as seed hulls or seed husks. So, for example, if you were to go to a Chinese food restaurant, and order some rice, that rice when it’s grown is encapsulated in two little shells and those shells are made predominately of silica, so they can’t be burned easily and they don’t have any real nutritional value. What we can do is feed them to our fungus, so the fungus digests some of the particles, while binding others together, and what you are left with is a cohesive piece of material.
GELLERMAN: Mushrooms and rice, so add a little soy sauce and you’ve got a meal!
MCINTYRE: You could! You could eat it, we don't particularly recommend it though!
GELLERMAN: And it works just like polystyrene?
MCINTYRE: That’s exactly right. Today we provide the material as a protective packaging solution, so for heavy objects such as furniture, like tabletops or bookshelves, as well as electronics and home appliances. Any of those custom-made parts that you see fit around a computer monitor for example. So, now, when you get your monitor in the mail you can just pull of the end caps, that were previously made of foam, now they are made out of mushrooms and agricultural waste, and you can throw them right in your backyard, and they’re going to be 100 percent home compostable in just 30 days.
GELLERMAN: So, if I got a TV set, and your packaging was around it, I would just throw it around in the compost pile?
MCINTYRE: That’s right! The best way to dispose of our material is to break it up into some smaller pieces and you can throw it right in your backyard. It serves as a nice active soil amendment actually because it helps aerate the soil and it provides some nutrition to the soil. But the material is also anaerobically compostable, so if it ends up in your municipal landfill, it is of no burden to the environment, it will just passively break down but it takes a little bit more time.
GELLERMAN: Will it sprout mushrooms?
MCINTYRE: Oh, that’s a very good question and the answer is no. So after our growth process we inactivate or basically kill it off. And to do that we dry it out using some standard baking processes. Because if you were to come into our manufacturing facility today what you would see is racks upon racks of these growing materials. It’s not a traditional manufacturing facility, we’re really closer to a vertical farm.
GELLERMAN: What does your factory smell like?
MCINTYRE: If you would come into our factory today, what you would smell is fairly similar to a mushroom farm. Some of our fungi species that we work with have a very sweet smell, and others really have a very woody smell, like you described earlier. So, our material sort of smells like the cross between a bakery, or a bread factory, and a woodmill.
GELLERMAN: So I’ve got another sample you sent and this one is hard though - it’s got one side hard…
[KNOCKS ON HARD SIDE OF MATERIAL]
GELLERMAN: What would you use this for?
MCINTYRE: So, we’ve been developing a construction material over the last few years. And what’s interesting about this material is not only it is comparable in insulation characteristics to foam, but it’s inherently fire retardant to the point that if you were to hit our material with a blow torch, it won’t burn.
GELLERMAN: So you could use this to insulate your house.
MCINTYRE: That’s correct, and we’ve actually insulated a number of houses as well as a some commercial applications in the American Northeast.
GELLERMAN: Could you make blocks of this stuff and actually do construction with it?
MCINTYRE: Yeah, so construction materials are one of the avenues that we’re pursuing today. So it’s installed in places in New York as well as in Vermont. And some of the other interesting things that we’re working with is, things such as replacements for engineered wood, like the cores that are found in your tabletops. We’re also developing materials for the automotive market, so the same performance characteristics that we’re getting out of the protective packaging, where it’s absorbing and dissipating energy, we’re applying those same materials to door panels and bumpers.
GELLERMAN: So, the bottom line, what’s the bottom line in terms of cost, how does this stack up against Styrofoam?
MCINTYRE: We sell these materials at either cost parity or below the foam and synthetics that they were using previously.
GELLERMAN: They’re cheaper?
MCINTYRE: It’s either parity or cheaper today - for a number of reasons. First, we have an open-loop system. So we’re just using agricultural waste from anywhere, so if there were ever to be a price constraint on a rice hull, we could easily transition to oat hulls. The other side of this is that we’re not dependant upon finite resources, we’re not tied in to the petrol market. And finally, all of our manufacturing processes are housed by the organism. It’s literally self-assembling, in the dark, at room temperature. So we don't have to have the same kind of complex machinery that’s required for expanded foams.
GELLERMAN: Do you have to keep your factory in the dark?
MCINTYRE: We don’t have to keep it in the dark, we keep the lights on, but those are only for the humans.
GELLERMAN: (Laughs). Gosh, this is terrific! So what’s the downside? There’s gotta be a downside to this…
MCINTYRE: So, today, our materials are slightly more dense, so they’re a little heavier than your traditional foams. But we’ve made some significant strides to date in terms of reducing our density. A few years ago we were at a 12-pound per cubic foot density where your traditional foams are between one and three pounds per cubic foot and today we’ve got our materials down to two and a half pounds.
GELLERMAN: Well, Gavin, thanks so much - really good talking to you.
MCINTYRE: Oh it’s my pleasure, thank you.
GELLERMAN: Gavin McIntyre is founder and chief scientist with Ecovative Design in Green Island, upstate New York.
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