The era of renewable packaging is upon us, but a few details remain to be worked out. For example, Frito-Lay has been making noise (while irritating snackers) with its very loud – but compostable – plant-based polylactic acid bag for Sun Chips. Meanwhile, a quieter innovation is growing near the campus of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York.
Ecovative Design grows its EcoCradle packaging material by adding filamentous fungi to buckwheat hulls inside a plastic form. The result is a composite material that the company markets as a competitor to expanded polystyrene. If you’re having trouble picturing this, take a moment to view the video linked at the end of this post.
The company has been improving its material since it started in 2007, the brainchild of two recently graduated (undergrad!) students in mechanical engineering at Rensselaer. According to founder Eben Bayer, he and co-founder Gavin McIntyre considered a number of potential business ideas while in school. A professor encouraged them to pursue the mushroom material plan by starting their own company, which they did, even though they had actual job offers in hand at graduation.
The fungal packaging, made of material Bayer dubs a self-assembled chitinous polymer material, is biodegradable in both composting (aerobic) and landfill (anaerobic) environments. Unlike starch-based renewable packaging, he points out, the use of agricultural waste products mean no food feedstocks are sacrificed. The composite material is more fireproof than petroleum-based polystyrene, but is denser (heavier) than many forms of the ubiquitous foamy stuff. The company also has an insulation product in the pipeline called Greensulate.
Bayer says being young and clueless was actually helpful in getting assistance for the business. “Both of us are very aggressive learners – since we didn’t know anything we asked a lot of questions. People are happy to tell you things when you are young.” The founders took a crash course in starting a business and raised seed money almost entirely from business plan competitions. “We didn’t win all of them which was okay because we got a lot of critical feedback.”
So far, the firm is still closely held and has just started commercial production (packaging for a line of Steelcase products). But Bayer says he hasn’t ruled out the possibility of bringing in venture capital funding or other backing to help the firm expand.
The National Science Foundation, which has awarded Ecovative a small business grant, has helpfully posted a video of how the material grows.
Hat tip to Greenbiz.
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