So it seems that mushrooms are no longer going to be relegated only to soups, salads and pastas. Apparently, with a bit of biotech know-how, they can also be used as packaging materials. Ecovative Design, a five-year-old company based in upstate New York, has figured out a way to incorporate mushrooms into shipping and packaging materials that completely break down in six to nine months and can be thrown in with compost.
These mushrooms aren’t exactly what you’d buy at the grocery store. The packaging material is created out of mycelium, the roots of a mushroom that are generally hidden beneath the soil. Ecovative Design founders Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre, two former design and mechanical engineering students, figured out a way to grow mycelium so that the cottony filaments bind with seed husks or agricultural byproducts, and can then be shaped into squares used in packaging. This amazing transformation happens at their 10,000-square-foot manufacturing facility, where the staff of more than forty inoculate mycelium into pasteurized plant stalks or seed husks, then place the mixture in clear plastic molds. The molds sit covered for about five days, during which literally millions of the mycelium strands grow through the mixture, acting as a natural glue. It is then heat dried, which prevents further growth. And since the mycelium comes from cloned materials, it contains no allergy-triggering spores.
Ecovative is growing fast, having brought in over $10 million in grants and equity, as well as some major league clients. Dell’s director of procurement has started a pilot program with Ecovative, looking to replace their environmentally destructive polyethylene foam with the plant-based material. And Crate and Barrel recently signed a contract as well, looking to reduce their reliance on other packaging materials. But it began as the brainchild of Bayer and McIntyre, experimenting with mushrooms in their college dorm room. Bayer realized the unique properties of mycelium as a child growing up on a Vermont farm, and they experimented with several different mushroom varieties before hitting on the perfect mix.
Although the Ecovative product costs a bit more than current shipping materials, cost is certain to come down as these lucrative contracts lead to increased production. And the environmental benefits are off the charts. Polystyrene breaks down incredibly slowly, and its makeup is a dangerous mix of toxic chemicals. The mycelium shipping materials leave no hazardous waste behind. And though there have been other plant-based packaging initiatives, such as grain-based packing peanuts, the consensus is that the mycelium-based material has more long-term potential, because it won’t impact any sort of food crop.
The founders of Ecovative are busy looking at other applications for the material. They’re studying the potential of roofing material that can actually repair itself, car bumpers, shoes, and even an alternative to plastic office furniture. Their dreams are big, but the technology is there. Basically, they can tweak the fungus used and the growth condition, and fine tune the performance and application. Eventually, they’d like to see anything that’s currently made of plastic made with mushrooms instead. And as Ecovative recently announced a deal with Sealed Air Corporation, the makers of Bubble Wrap, it appears they may be well on their way. So you might not be able to find promo codes for mushroom packaging materials quite yet, but if McIntyre and Bayer have their way, it won’t be long at all.