Update: This story has been updated to include more information about styrene and polystyrene, as well as a comment from the polystyrene industry.
In the dead of winter, Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre want to talk about flip-flops. They’re not planning a vacation, and this isn’t just any old beachwear. They’ve designed their own beach sandals, with soles made entirely of mushroom fibers.
They are 100 percent biodegradable. Petroleum-free and compostable. Blow out a flip-flop? Throw it on your lettuce patch. It will break down into plant food in a matter of weeks.
Flip-flops are only a beginning. Bayer and McIntyre, the 26-year-old co-founders of Ecovative Design, have used mushroom spores as the base for all kinds of products. The goal: to create a viable, eco-friendly alternative to the plastics industry and particularly to polystyrene, the versatile synthetic polymer best known for Styrofoam cups and packing peanuts.
Polystyrene’s days are numbered, Bayer and McIntyre say, and if they’re not, they should be. Styrene is probably a carcinogen, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and it’s terrible for the environment. The polystyrene industry counters that its products are environmentally safe, energy-efficient and that it is trusted by industry and consumers as a versatile material, whether as a packaging material or as a container for your lunch. Still, Americans throw away some 25 billion Styrofoam cups each year, according to the EPA, garbage that will sit in landfills for at least 500 years. A growing number of communities in America have given up trying to recycle it.
“We could replace it in a generation,” says Bayer.
Think grow-to-order. Ecovative runs out of a 40,000 square-foot, bio-materials production facility in Green Island, N.Y., about 15 minutes from the campus of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where the co-founders earned degrees in mechanical engineering and product design. In a week to 10 days, the company can grow miles of superthin, supergrippy mushroom fiber that can be molded into nearly any shape.
It starts with a mash of corn stalks and vegetable husks impregnated with mushroom spores. The fungus eats the plant nutrients, then grows a complex root network that fills the shapes of the molds. The final product is a foam that looks something like a big wafer of nougat candy. It is placed in an oven to stop the spores from growing and to give the material the proper texture, hardness, and elasticity.
“The products literally grow themselves. In the dark. With little to no human contact,” says McIntyre. Each mold can be treated to create a material with different qualities. Home insulation must be fire-retardant and energy efficient; cabinets have to be sturdy; a car dashboard or bumper has to be strong but with give.
It’s not a magic-bullet plastic substitute. Mycelium strands are too dense and will probably never be transparent—not good for, say, plastic food wraps.
Lately, Bayer says, the company has been working with Detroit automakers. “We’re doing tear-downs on their cars to see where they use foam and where our material might work instead,” Bayer says.
First, though, the company has to build a better packaging unit. In June, Ecovative Design inked a deal with Sealed Air (SEE), an $8.1 billion packaging juggernaut that brought the world Bubble Wrap and Cryovac food packaging. By June, Sealed Air will have built the first of a series of factories to make Restore Mushroom Packaging.
Soon laptop computers, white goods, and furniture will be shipped in the new packing material that consumers can shred and throw on their compost heap. Dell (DELL) and Steelcase (SCS) are already using the eco-friendly shipping material. Starting in the spring, Bloomberg (which owns Businessweek), will use it for new customers.
Tim McInerney, Sealed Air’s sustainable solutions business manager, says shipping customers like the environmental component and the fact that it comes without a cost premium or a performance lag. Still, Ecovative has a long road ahead. The established market for styrene products is dominated by such companies as DuPont (DD) and BASF (BAS:GR), which have strong incentives to protect their margins—and the deep pockets to do so.
There is only one way forward, says Bayer: “We have to be better and cheaper. Otherwise, we’re never getting rid of plastics.”