replace the fuctionality of styrofoam



Ah, polystyrene. Also known as styrofoam, it's the material designed to have no end of life. It sits for what's said to be 1000 years without decomposing, hence occupying over 20% of landfill space. Polystyrene (#6 plastic) has many other negative aspects, but I'd like to focus on two products that have changed the way we think about this ever-present material.

A small company called Ecovative has set out to create an alternative to foam, and their brilliant idea has caught my attention and made me swoon.. They're replacing polystyrene foam packaging with packaging grown from mushrooms. It may sound impossible, but it's true! This organic material they've created is called MycoBond, and it's part of their EcoCradle packaging products. Even more amazing is that they've incorporated agricultural byproducts into this fully compostable material. I can't think any other material that can replace the fuctionality of styrofoam - it's lightweight, insulates extremely well, and is cheap to make. It even trumps polystyrene in that it's fire & water resistant, and insulates against acoustics! But why is EcoCradle packaging cheaper to make? Because there is no manufacturing, no large equipment, no shipping of ingredients. How is this possible? The magic ingredient is mycelium, often called"nature's polymer". This ever-growing network of the fungus is added to whatever regional byproducts are available, and this living organism is put in a mold to create the shape of the final material. If this process were to be done in China, they might use rice husks or cotton seed hull. In North America, we can buckwheat husks or oat hulls which are waste products. The myceluim grows through the husks over the span of a week or so. See this video of a time lapse of the growth cycle.

Below is the finished product, ready to be used in packaging any number of things.

Co-founder Eben Bayer spoke at TED, and I recommend seeing his TED talk if you'd like to learn more. The company is based in Green Island, NY (less than 2 hours away from Beacon!) and I'm so glad they're part of our community. Ecovative Design has recently been awarded a grant by NYSERDA to pursue this work, along with 16 other NY-based groups.


The second product to make me giddy is called Rastra. It's an insulation material made of 85% post-consumer expanded polystyrene & 15% cement, according to the website. It's amazing to me that so much of this material is used styrofoam, because the material is notoriously difficult to repurpose. There are very few places where styrofoam/polystyrene are actually recycled, so when I heard about this my heart started racing. I immediately checked all over their site for a place to send used material, but found nothing. Then I started asking around, starting with my friend Mike, who is a local builder (soon to be interviewed for his nearly off the grid house made of repurposed items). I was wondering how safe it was, and how often he's seen it used in his experience. It sounds like it's considered safe, and that it requires the installer to have taken certain classes to be able to work with it.


I'd still like to learn more, and see it in person. Their website has quite a bit of info about their commitment to the environment, and it sounds like the product has been used since 1968. I plan on asking the company whether or not they accept used polystyrene, and where their supply comes from. If anyone knows of other places to send polystyrene for reuse, please contact me.

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