Why Dell and Steelcase are using mushrooms and agricultural waste

Ecovative’s cofounders Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre developed the company’s trademark RestoreTM Mushroom® Packaging that is made only of plant-based agricultural waste and mushroom roots. The technology began as a college experiment initially grown under a dormitory bed and has since sprouted into a sustainable packaging solution that can now be found protecting college students’ Dell computers. Ecovative has recently partnered with Sealed Air to sell, distribute and manufacture this groundbreaking protective packaging product.

MBDC recently spoke with Ecovative Environmental Director Sam Harrington about how the company was inspired by Cradle to Cradle principles to grow packaging, and the huge promise of mushroom technology to disrupt the plastic industry, not just in packaging but across applications.

How did you discover that mushrooms could be used for packaging?

Most products made from renewable materials use plants or animals, but there’s this whole other kingdom of biology, fungi, that’s never really been explored before for materials.  Ecovative co-founder Eben Bayer was inspired by a childhood observation from working on a maple syrup farm that fungal mycelium strongly binds wood chips together. Gavin and Eben were able to translate this observation to use the mycelium (mushroom roots) to bind loose particles together.

Does your product design and process apply Cradle to Cradle principles?

At the beginning of Ecovative, Cradle to Cradle was required reading and the principles behind it were a big inspiration to us in our sourcing and end of life. Our early samples used perlite and vermiculite as the substrate bonded with mycelium, but those are mined, nonrenewable minerals. We now use agricultural waste products that can’t be used as feed to animals, which allows us to use a really wide range of materials that are locally sourced. In the Northeast we can use corn stocks, and when we set up a facility in Texas we can use cotton gin waste or rice husks. Unlike other corn-based plastic packaging that is made from food-grade materials, this product will not have an effect on food prices.

The fungi, what we call nature’s recycling system, turns these loose agricultural materials into mycelium which forms a network of white tissue that binds it all together. It grows just the same as fungi in the forest.  We then strain that into a shape that can be molded to form packaging or car parts. 

At the end of life, our material is completely backyard compostable since the product is made of only mushroom and plant materials. Personally, I use it as mulch on my home vegetable garden plot and it works great. Most bio-plastic packaging materials, such as PLA, will only break down in industrial composting facilities. Our material breaks down the way things in nature do. With this product waste really does equal food, both for the fungi and our ecosystem.

Next page: Recognition from Cradle to Cradle