Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre
Eco-friendly packaging from mushrooms
Finalists for the European Inventor Award 2019
40% of plastic produced today is used in single-use packaging, which is immediately discarded once it has served its purpose, often ending up in landfill or in our seas. Committed environmentalists, Bayer and McIntyre were determined to be part of the solution to this problem by coming up with an environmentally-friendly alternative.
Their invention has its origins in Bayer’s childhood on his family’s farm in Vermont, where he noticed that fungi had glued together piles of wood chips. They realised that the strand-like root structures of fungi found under the soil, called mycelia, are capable of binding together with waste, such as corn husks, rice or hemp. Bayer and McIntyre took this idea and produced a material made from mycelium. The mycelium is fed agricultural waste at room temperature and harvested every four to six days. The result is a non-toxic substance that can be moulded into any shape required. It is then dried and baked to solidify it, preventing the growth of mushrooms.
The biomaterial has many advantages over traditional counterparts. It is strong, delivering a strength-to-weight ratio comparable to many plastic-based products, and fully degradable in 45 to 180 days. Toxicity studies even show that the material can enrich the soil. All of the energy for growth is contained within the waste matter, meaning that there is no need for accelerated heating. The manufacturing process therefore requires between one-fifth and one-eighth of the energy used for foamed plastics. Production is also entirely sustainable, using local supply chains and sourcing raw materials from within a 100 km radius of processing facilities.
In 2006, Bayer and McIntyre filed their first US patent for their material. The following year they founded their company, the New York-based Ecovative Design, to begin commercialising it. The two inventors, who met while studying Mechanical Engineering and Product Design and Innovation at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, decided to focus on packaging. Today, Ecovative supplies mycelium-based packaging to companies looking to reduce their plastic consumption. Brands such as IKEA and Dell are two examples of businesses that use the material for packaging or shipping purposes. The company is now expanding its product range to building insulation, eco-friendly furniture, insulation for jackets and resilient foam for footwear.
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