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Genius Idea: Replacing Styrofoam with Mushrooms
Eben Bayer grew up on a maple syrup farm in Vermont, helping his parents chop wood and bathing in water warmed by a homemade solar heater. But it wasn't until he went away to college near Albany, New York, that he heard the word green applied to his family's way of life—and saw how his bucolic past might shape his future. While devising an eco-friendly glue for a class on invention, Bayer remembered the sticky white substance—mycelium, the "root" of a mushroom—he'd occasionally seen growing on the wood chips his family used as fuel. "And I was struck by this wild idea," he says. "Why not use mushroom roots as glue?"
Bayer's professor encouraged him to pursue the idea, and soon Bayer and a classmate, Gavin McIntyre, were growing the wet, rubbery fungus in McIntyre's apartment. They discovered it was strong enough to bind together cornhusks, rice hulls, and other inedible by-products of farming. When baked with these materials, it produced an uncannily Styrofoam-like substance. Bayer and McIntyre knew they were onto something.
After graduating in 2007, the pair cofounded Ecovative Design, a company that sells biodegradable alternatives to materials like Styrofoam, which can remain in landfills for hundreds of years. Soon they were "growing" packaging for the office furniture company Steelcase and the computer giant Dell; they also recently inked a deal with Crate & Barrel. In a 10,000-square-foot facility in upstate New York, assembly-line robots now combine mushrooms with cornhusks and other food by-products from local farms; the fungi are then left in the dark to grow and digest parts of the husks before being baked (which kills the live organisms). Bayer hopes the mushrooms will eventually be used for everything from automobile parts (to replace the foam used in bumpers, for example) to flip-flops. "Our goal is to rid the planet of harmful disposable plastics," he says. "When that bag from the supermarket finds its way into a field, I want it to be nutrients for the field."
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