Mushrooms: They’re good for more than eating

It looks like Styrofoam but it's made from mushrooms

It looks like Styrofoam but it’s made from mushrooms

One of the more exciting themes coursing through the world of sustainable business is the circular economy–the idea that we can eliminate waste, and turn stuff we no longer need into something else. That’s why I got excited when I heard about a startup company called Ecovative, which uses mushroom and crop waste to make substitutes for plastics.

I wrote about Ecovative this week for Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how the story begins:

Mushrooms, as any cook knows, are versatile: they enhance soups, stews, pasta, salads and omelettes, and they can be stuffed, baked, fried or sautéed.

As it turns out, they are equally versatile outside of the food world. They can produce packaging, home insulation, fiberboard for furniture, even a surfboard.

So says Eben Bayer, the 28-year-old CEO and co-founder of Ecovative, a small company that’s developing an array of environmentally friendly materials that perform like plastics but are made by mushrooms – specifically, by their webs of thread-like roots, known as mycelium, which consume crop waste. These materials can be grown and recycled, as opposed to being drilled, pumped, refined and discarded.

“We’re able to compete with an entrenched billion-dollar plastic industry because we’re not extracting things,” Bayer said last week, at the fall conference of the Social Venture Network (SVN) in Baltimore. “We’re leveraging the power of biology.”

Founded in 2007 in the aptly named village of Green Island, New York, near Albany, Ecovative is a small company with big ambitions. It already has generated a lot of buzz: It won the Dutch Postcode Lottery Green Challenge, a global $750,000 sustainable business prize. The World Economic Forum named the company a technology pioneer in 2011. Bayer even delivered a TED talk. And Ecovative won grants by the US EPA, the National Science Foundation and the US Department of Agriculture.

More important than all the acclaim, as the story goes on to say, is that Ecovative last year signed an agreement to license its Mushroom Packaging technology to Sealed Air, a $7.6-billion company. Sealed Air had adapted a factory in Iowa to produce Mushroom Packaging, using corn stalks as feedstock. This is evidence that Ecovative may have a real business.

When I first read about Ecovative (in a long story earlier this year in The New Yorker), I immediately thought of biomimicry — the idea designers can learn from nature, and then use its designs and processes to solve business or human problems. But, as Eben noted in his talk at SVN, Ecovative isn’t imitating nature. It is actually deploying nature–i.e., those mushroom roots–in its factory.

Ecovative is planning to make home insulation and a substitute for fiberboard using similar processes. Here’s a link to a video of Eben talking about how the company built a “tiny house,” in part using the mushrooms. You can read my story here.

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