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The end of plastic? 'Ecovative' changes packaging forever

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Could plastic be a thing of the past? It sure seems that way, thanks to Ecovative – a new material science company developing a class of home-compostable bioplastics based on mycelium, a living organism. Ecovative has developed and designed an all-natural solution to plastic manufacturing: Mushroom® Packaging. The new technique is a high performing, cost-competitive alternative to standard foam packaging. Yes, Ecovative is replacing the standard plastic and foam method of mail transport with your favorite vegetable.

Mushroom Packaging is replacing thousands of plastic and foam parts that will be sitting in landfills or waterways indefinitely. The amount of garbage generated each day is no joke. According to National Geographic, Americans generated 251 million tons of trash in 2006, measuring at 4.6 pounds per person, per day. Ecovative asserts that the less plastic and foam used today, the cleaner our future will be.

“We are using agricultural wastes and upcycling those materials into viable products. At the end of use, our products are entirely returned back to the Earth in the form of compost or mulch,” said Melissa Jacobson, Director of First Impressions. “While there might be biotechnology companies out there utilizing vital resources, Ecovative is growing materials that have essentially no negative consequences.”

CEO Eben Bayer envisioned the concept while working on a farm in Vermont, where he grew up shoveling woodchips into a gasifier to produce maple syrup. Bayer noticed that clumps would often stick together by tiny white strands. He later learned that these tenacious fibers were mycelium – the vegetative growth stage of fungi - that self-assembles into a natural glue. Years later, this discovery compelled Bayer to partner up with Gavin MacIntyre at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) to make composite materials with mycelium instead of toxic chemical resins and plastics. In 2007, their professor, Burt Swersey, urged them both to quit their jobs and start Ecovative. They set up shop in RPI's Business Incubator to continue their experiments.

Ecovative is far from the start-up it was six years ago. The company is prospected to have a bright future in the industry, having won awards from ASME’s iShow, RPI’s Change the World Challenge, and PICNIC’s Green Challenge, the world’s largest award for solutions addressing climate change. Mushroom Packaging is already used by Dell, Crate & Barrel and PUMA.

In order to find the perfect strain, Ecovative’s lab has tested many types of waste and many strains of mycelium. Furthering its sustainable mission, the company sources the agricultural wastes from regional farmers, and Ecovative employees mainly cultivate the mycelium strains or gather them in company hikes or outings.

With a new plastic alternative, Ecovative plans to extend beyond the packaging industry by supplying smart materials for circuitry and medical implants, which will also leverage the self-assembling nature of mycelium along with its biocompatible characteristics. “Currently, we are focused on replacing large or bulky foams and plastics,” said Jacobson. “As we move forward, we will continue to focus on the packaging industry but also shift to new industries, including building and construction materials, automotive parts, aquatics, and surfing.”

In 2013, Ecovative built the world’s first Mushroom House with Mushroom insulation. They also developed a surfboard grown from agricultural waste and mycelium, which will eventually decompose when broken, discarded, or lost in the ocean. The surfboard provides a solution for the accumulation of plastics in the ocean, as it effectively reduces toxic marine debris.

“We’ve proven this technology with a plastic foam replacement, and now we’re expanding into denser material that can replace engineered wood like fiberboard, without the need for carcinogenic urea-formaldehyde adhesives,” said Jacobson. “While many companies are focused on 'high' technology, Ecovative is focused on being a low tech company. We harness natural processes and let them perform as they were intended.”

Since Mushroom Packaging is custom-designed, interested customers and companies should contact the sales team an email at sales@ecovativedesign.com.

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