By harnessing the evolved efficiency of nature, Ecovative is literally growing some remarkable materials and products using fungi and agricultural waste. This post dives in on the thinking behind these radical ecological innovations.
Ecovative uses mushroom technology to grow EcoCradle protective packaging, which is a renewable and compostable replacement for Styrofoam and other plastic foams. We use the “roots” of mushrooms, called mycelium, to glue together agricultural byproducts like oat hulls or cotton burrs into any shape. The resulting environmentally responsible materials perform like expanded plastic, but are renewable and biodegradable. Today these sustainable Mushroom Materials are used for packaging, and tomorrow they will be used for insulation, furniture, apparel, and more.
To be unsustainable is to commit a crime against the future of humanity, and the future of many lifeforms on planet Earth. I would argue that only renewable materials can be truly sustainable. It’s a big design challenge, but perhaps we should find ways to eliminate all plastics, metals, and all mined and synthetic materials. Despite valiant efforts, we’re far from achieving 100% recycling rates. Even when we do recycle, our primitive human recycling systems take a lot of energy and generally output increasingly lower grade, or “downcycled”, materials. In contrast, nature’s recycling system (called composting) is 100% efficient; all waste becomes food for something else, and it doesn’t require any electricity.
So, what renewable materials do we humans have to work with?
Luckily we live on the most wondrous planet we’ve ever discovered. We live amongst 50 million different species that all self-assemble unique and amazing bio-materials. As a disclaimer here, I’m not saying that we should make fur coats out of endangered species. What I am saying, is that we can learn a lot from nature, and in many cases responsibly adapt what already exists to suit our needs.
“Luckily we live on the most wondrous planet we’ve ever discovered. We live amongst 50 million different species that all self-assemble unique and amazing bio-materials”
Hold your hand out in front of you, and admire how tough and durable your finger nails are… they’re a little flexible, and tough like plastic. Your nails are made of keratin, a natural polymer that’s produced in 20 little factories that you carry with you everywhere; they’re called your fingers and toes. Even better than every piece of plastic you’ve ever owned, your bio-plastic finger nails are self-repairing! Saving your nail clippings to form into a plastic replacement would be impractical, and maybe a bit gross. So wouldn’t it be amazing, if we could figure out a way to quickly grow materials like keratin into useful shapes? Ecovative is doing just that. The mycelium that we’re using to grow Mushroom Materials is actually self-assembling a similar polymer, chitin!
Biomimicry is defined as “innovation inspired by nature.” Most biomimicry success stories tout increases in efficiency, or decreases in material use, which are good things for sure. However, I would argue that biomimicry should often be defined as “unnatural solutions that try to copy nature.” Take Velcro for example. About 50 years ago, Velcro was inspired by the burdock plant which created tiny hooks that would latch onto any tangled or looped fibers. So the human who invented Velcro decided to make a fastener that worked on this principal, but was made from plastic. Although cool and convenient, when viewed from a sustainability standpoint, Velcro is worse than an old fashioned wooden button. Another example of biomimicry are the wind turbine blades with nodules that are based off of the bumps on the trailing edge of whale fins. This makes the blades more efficient, but they’re still made out of harmful and non-renewable resins. In many case studies of biomimicry, we’re still making things that are fundamentally unsustainable; we’re just making them in a clever way.
What we’re doing at Ecovative is not biomimicry. It’s bio-adaptation. Bio-adaptation is about aligning the fundamental purpose of an organism to meet a real need of people on this planet. Farming is bio-adaptation. Ecovative is harnessing mycelium to do what it’s evolved for millions of years to do: break down tough compounds like lignin and cellulose in woody biomass and glue the forest floor together. The only thing we’re tweaking, is that we constrain it to grow into a defined shape that has a human purpose.
Creating a defined shape, at the same time as the raw material forms is a rare and elegant thing. As a counter example, think of a chair. Normally when we make chairs we cut down trees, saw them up, generate lots of waste, mine metals for fasteners or synthesize chemicals for adhesives, and eventually, after expending lots of energy, we’ve made a chair. What if instead we could just give mycelium ideal growing conditions in a contained environment that happened to be shaped like a chair? Today we can do that, and the mycelium will simultaneously grow the raw materials and the shape of the chair without needing any extra processing, and without creating any waste.
When we think about raw materials, we rarely think about the time it takes to create them. By externalizing the value of most natural systems, capitalism has created a situation where the timescale to make (or to grow) materials is not considered. How long does it take to make a wooden chair? Well, first you’ve got to grow a tree, and that takes 15-1000 years. What if you want to make a plastic chair? Well first you’ve got to grow algae, and then wait for 65 million years for it to become oil that we can suck out of remote wells, transport, refine, polymerize, and mold.
“The amazing thing about Ecovative’s Mushroom Materials is that they grow in just a few days!”
The amazing thing about Ecovative’s Mushroom Materials is that they grow in just a few days!
The mycelium based materials that we grow at Ecovative use waste products as inputs, self assemble into useful products which fulfill a human need, and when they’re finished, they can decompose naturally adding nutrients to the soil. Nature has spent millions of years developing incredible materials that can outperform our best technology; we just have to find these materials and devise responsible and sustainable ways to benefit from them.
About Sam Harrington
Sam leads the marketing and sales team at Ecovative who works to replace unsustainable plastics, foams and other harmful materials with natural composites.
> More about Sam Harrington
About the Hello Materials exhibition
Experience fascinating examples of present and future materials and gain an insight into what they will mean to society and the individual. Visit the exhibition between the 2nd of April and the 21st of September 2012.
> Visit ddc.dk for more information about the Hello Materials exhibition