Mighty Mushroom Magic Against Petroleum Pollution

Thought it would be appropriate to begin this post with a picture of  the humble mushroom as ‘Mighty Mushroom’, no less than a superhero who has the potential to save us all. The foe we’re up against is no ordinary enemy. It is an enemy that has stealthily pervaded every facet of our modern-day life and is wreaking havoc with systems that enable life to flourish, making such vibrant systems in need of life-support systems themselves. You may be all too familiar with the effects of plastic pollution and our dependence on petroleum. I have written about this in the past. Available here and here. When I read stories about climate summits and how they stumble forward at a pace that is painfully slow, it makes me realize that true change can never come from dependence on nation-states and policy alone. It especially hurts to read things like “Some deadlines for accomplishing these have already passed and it appears little of substance was accomplished in Bangkok, with that work being passed on to the next meeting set for June in Bonn, Germany.” So while the so-called decision makers jet-set their way from one picturesque destination to another, trying to negotiate over something that should have been a foregone conclusion, it is heartening to see social entrepreneurs and start-ups dive into the deep end and come out tops with radical solutions that can actually save humanity.

The latest buzz is about a start-up called “Ecovative Design” based in Green Island, New York. Ecovative was started in 2007 by two students with a wild idea; “to make materials better than Styrofoam out of… mushrooms!” Today this company led by Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre is replacing thousands of petrochemical based packaging parts with a renewable biodegradable alternative: EcoCradle™

They actually use mycelium (or mushroom roots in lay terms) and crop waste like rice hulls or cotton burrs to produce a new chitinous polymer composite material that performs like plastics but does not depend on petro-chemicals, does not take food away from hungry people, and uses little energy to manufacture plus is 100% bio-degradable and home-compostable at the end of its life. What’s more, this technology allows for creation of products that are fire resistant (unlike styrofoam), moisture resistant, vapor resistant, insulating and even those that absorb acoustical impacts! How cool is that?! No one says it better than Eben. Watch a video of his TED Talk here where he explains the technology and the spirit behind this innovation, sorry ecovation!

On the 5th of Apr,2011 Dell announced a pilot program where it has started shipping servers protected by EcoCradle™ products instead of foam. Oliver Campbell, Procurement Director announced “We’ve tested the mushroom cushioning extensively in the lab to ensure it meets our same high standards to safely protect our products during shipment – and it passed like a champ.  Now we’re ready to take the next step and we’re proud that Dell is the first technology company to start pilot shipments.” Way to go Dell!

Ecovative has also teamed up with Ford to manufacture partially compostable cars! Now let’s make that a little more specific. What they have teamed up for is to use Ecovative’s mushroom-based foam as a key component in bumpers, side doors, and dashboards. Ford hopes to replace 30 pounds of each car’s petroleum-based foams with more environmentally sensible alternatives. More information available here.

Drawbacks to mushroom based packaging: This site says these products are denser and therefore heavier than styrofoam and that might in turn affect shipments. If that is true, I do hope they find a way to make it comparable. All else being the same, in comparison to foam, my vote would still go to this product any day! Also in question is that fact that some of the products deemed agricultural “wastes” are  already used as animal feed or as a component of fertilizer. Maybe true, but I guess it is then up to us to choose feedstock that is not already being used in this manner. There’s another drawback, business is pouring in so rapidly that the company is finding it a challenge to meet demand! But that is always a good problem to have. Isn’t it? 🙂

It is very exciting to learn of such developments. This company has approximately 30 employees, has received a total of $4 million in grants and other funding for their research and development activities. I hope their story inspires many more to start their own ecologically sensitive venture. After all, what’s good for the Earth, is good for us and the reverse need not always hold true.  With products that are over-packaged today, this company’s venture is the need of the hour. The IMF has issued a warning that the global economy is entering a period of scarcer oil that could drive prices up rapidly. If this article is right, the  global packaging industry is worth US$ 424 billion and out of this Europe has US$127 billion, Asia has US$114 billion, North America has US$ 118 billion, Latin America has US$ 30 billion, and other countries have $US 30 billion. Irrespective of the statistics, there is HUGE potential for companies with the right products to make an immediate difference to the world we live in and profit from it too.

Those of you who are familiar with mycology, and also those who are excited about mighty mushroom magic,  listen to this exciting TED talk by Paul Stamets on 6 ways mushrooms can save the world and you will get many more ideas for many different kinds of companies that can be great for the world and you. It gets a bit technical in a few places but the overall message is very accessible.  Even if we don’t start a company like this ourselves, let’s try our best to support people doing such pioneering work that can benefit all of humanity!

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