Using the Principles of 'Cowness' to Create Eco-Friendly Products

The key to creating environmentally responsible products is tapping into the natural processes and the whole properties of organisms, according to Eben Bayer. Or as the co-founder and CEO of Ecovative Design prefers to put it, "taking the whole 'cowness' of an organism" to get the desired product.

Bayer extolled the qualities of cows and grass, two of his favorite organisms, to illustrate the concept at a "One Great Idea Session," during the State of Green Business Forum last week in Washington, D.C.

"I think grass is pretty phenomenal because grass does something really amazing -- it's the world expert in turning photons into grass," said Bayer. "I'm a mechanical engineer.State of Green Business If any of you asked me to design a machine that does this, that can be grown from a seed that starts as a single blade of grass on prairie and fill an entire prairie with solar collection, I'd tell you it's impossible. Grass totally knocks our socks off in terms of what we can do technically today."

He called cows the world experts at turning grass into cows. While there are ways to create protein from grass using, say, bacteria grown in vats, the best way to produce cows from grass is to use cows -- "a four-stage fermenter on four legs," he said.

"If you want cow, pick a cow," said Bayer. "They have some good properties. They're self-assembling. Cows start small, they get bigger. They're self-repairing. I don't know if you've ever dented one of your cows, but if you do, they get better. If you dent one of your bioreactors that's full of bacteria, it's very expensive. And they're self-replicating -- if you have a prairie full of grass and you have two cows, you can bootstrap yourself into an army of cows."

Conceding that he offered his example in jest, Bayer noted that the cow nevertheless provides a good model for eco-friendly design and the importance of "taking the whole 'cowness' of an organism to get your output."

"I think there is great potential to find the cowness in every organism for the good of the planet," said Bayer.

Finding the cowness to create eco-organisms is a guiding principle at Ecovative Design. Bayer likes to say the firm grows, rather than manufactures, EcoCradle packaging material.

Made from mushrooms roots and seed husks, EcoCradle is biodegradable and 100 percent compostable and is designed as a replacement for expanded polystyrene foam, which does neither, and whose main component is derived from petroleum or natural gas.

EcoCradle has one-fifth to one-tenth of the embodied energy of manufactured packing foam, according to Bayer. "I'm not talking about 10 percent less, this is an order-of-magnitude improvement," he said.

The product isn't just green, he added, it's cost competitive and high performing. Office furniture manufacturer Steelcase, an industry leader in environmentally responsible products and manufacturing, now uses EcoCradle, Bayer noted.

Ecovative Design also has been working with another major firm. Bayer said he could not provide details, but hinted, "Starting this spring the world's greenest electronics manufacturer is going to get a whole lot greener."

Top image and index photo by Goodwin Ogbuehi, http://flickr.com/photos/yoshikatsu. Inset image of "cowness" courtesy of Ecovative Design.