04/24/2012 02:54 pm ET Updated Jun 24, 2012

Mushrooms Grow As Polystyrene Alternative

Their mothers must be proud. The idea for their ingenious new packaging material, made from mycelium -- the hidden roots of mushrooms -- came from the fungus growing under their dorm room beds.

True, it was growing there on purpose, for a class assignment at Rensselaer Polytechnical Institute, but still. I can imagine them pleading with their moms: "No, Ma, don't touch those smelly socks or anything else that appear to be composting under the bed, it's important." And sure enough it was. Six years later, Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre have their own company, Ecovative Designs, Inc, making packaging materials using mycelium and agricultural byproducts that can be shaped like plastics for use in cushioning everything from electronics to wine so they ship safely.

With customers like Dell and Steelcase, Ecovative Designs has more than a toe-hold in the rapidly expanding market for eco-friendly alternatives to plastic foams, and is testing new products like car bumpers, roofing materials, furniture, footwear and more.

Their product, called EcoCradle Mushroom Packaging, performs as well as polystyrene, its plastic counterpart, but is totally natural, non-toxic and 100 percent compostable, breaking down in 6-9 months. This is in stark contrast to polystyrene, which is so stable it may take decades to hundreds of years to deteriorate in the environment, making it a major component of plastic debris in the ocean where it becomes toxic to marine life.

EcoCradle packaging also scores well when comparing energy needs. Because of mycelium’s intrinsic ability to self assemble lignin and cellulose into strong bio-composites, EcoCradle material can grow without a lot of heat, pressure, or energy added. Consequently, to make it uses significantly less energy than the manufacturing of synthetic foams. And EcoCradle distinguishes itself from other bio-plastics because it doesn't rely on food or fuel crops as feedstock; only inedible crop waste is used to create their products. 

What I also like about Ecovative Designs is the founders' vision to create a model "local manufacturing" business. As Bayer explains in a TED Talk, Ecovative Designs hopes to franchise or license the manufacturing system including customized formulations that rely on locally sourced feedstock. So, in China, one might use a rice husk or a cotton seed shell, whereas someone in Europe or North America might use buck wheat or oat hulls. According to their website, even a small company, one that processes and packages as few as 10 orders a day, might see a financial advantage in setting up their own custom packaging facility using all local raw materials.

As the mom of two 20-something boys, I admit they had me with the whole fungus-growing-under-the-bed thing. But I'm also a sucker for anything I can compost, and nearly giddy at the thought of composting an ecologically benign packaging material that maybe someday could squeeze polystyrene out of the market. I'm going to write the wine club I recently joined and tell them about EcoCradle. And we're looking into buying a new printer. I might check to see if they know of mushroom packaging. Sounds silly? It's not. You'd be surprised at how quickly companies respond to their customers suggestions, particularly such a positive one as this.