EcoCradle: Can mushroom packaging be the new wave for green purchasing?

By Natalie Hummel - 05 Aug 2012 12:5:26 GMT
EcoCradle: Biodegradable mushroom packaging

Packaging made from mushrooms; Credit: © Ecovative Design

My morning rush hour begins with a cup of delicious coffee... from a coffee house. Its Styrofoam cup is light, durable, and it keeps my coffee hot, for a long time. That coffee brings a smile to my face, and after tossing the empty cup in the recycling bin, I think Mother Earth will be okay, because the cup should be recycled.

Will it be recycled?

An online purchase arrives on my door step. It's sealed and protected in Styrofoam. As I trudge to the recycle bin yet again, I wonder about Styrofoam and about its recyclability.

Are eco-friendly alternatives to Styrofoam out there?

"Styrofoam" is a Dow Chemical Co. trademarked polystyrene foam insulation. It is made from petroleum. During the production process, Dow uses a carcinogenic chemical known as benzene. Styrofoam does not breakdown and takes up 30 % of landfills worldwide. Moreover, when ingested by animals, Styrofoam blocks their digestive tracts and can lead to starvation.

Styrofoam is often not recycled: It is cost prohibitive to transport to a recycling plant, given the large volume of Styrofoam per unit of weight. Regarding Styrofoam food packaging, the energy and water used to clean it increases recycling costs.

When Styrofoam is recycled, its polymers degrade and are "down-cycled" into lower grade materials that are still not biodegradable.

Some Styrofoam products can be re-used, if not recycled. The plastic loose fill known as packing peanuts can be reused. The Plastic Loose Fill Council (PLFC) website offers the nearest collection site for plastic loosefill packaging. Not factored into the cost of this re-use scenario are the energy and transportation costs to drop off the material.

An exciting new alternative to Styrofoam packaging is a compostable alternative, derived from mushroom based packaging. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute graduates discovered that nature often offers many solutions to existing problems. Graduate students studied mushroom roots (fungal mycelium) and they noticed that mushroom roots naturally adhere to woodchips. They also digest them.

Ecovative Design was founded to produce alternative packing material out of sustainable materials such as mushroom roots. Let's take a look at this fascinating process.

To produce alternative packing material, Ecovative places agricultural waste products in a mold. They use the waste that can't be fed to animals nor burned. The mold is filled with agricultural waste and mushroom roots, which grow and digest the waste. Approximately a week later, the mushrooms create a cushion, and this "cushion" is heat-treated to stop further growth. The cushion feels and performs just like foam - but it is 100 percent compostable in your backyard.

biodegradable, compostable packaging made from mushrooms

Biodegradable, compostable packaging made from musghrooms; Credit: © Ecovative Design

The packaging is grown with the carbohydrates from the waste, so it uses 98 percent less energy than foam packaging. It prevents waste streams from building up in landfills. Ecovative products are 100 percent biodegradable, renewable and they are a win/win for human health and for the environment.

Ecovative will soon use flame retardant mushroom technology as housing insulation, and as automobile parts such as door panels and bumpers. Many chemicals will no longer enter our environment due to mushroom technology.

Dell, PUMA, Crate and Barrel and 3M recognize the economic and environmental benefits of mushroom packaging. Dell tested the packaging and is shipping PowerEdge R710 servers to select customers. "Our value proposition to the customer is that we're going to give you the same performance at the same price as polystyrene," said a Dell executive, "but we're going to create a product that isn't trash when it arrives at your house. It's actually a nutrient for the environment."

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Topics: Recycling / Sustainability