Polystrene has been a dominant player in the packaging industry since its early days of being manufactured in Germany by I.G. Farben—just think of all the Styrofoam found in product packaging in the United States and Canada. Though incredibly adaptable as a compound and useful for both goods production and delivery, it’s very environmentally unfriendly. Polystrene takes hundreds of years to break down, is resistant to photolysis, and is one of the main pollutants in ocean debris. It is often mistaken for food by fish and birds, which can kill them if too much is eaten. At the same time, polystyrene ingestion also introduces associated toxic chemicals into the food chain.
To tackle this problem, two young American men teamed up 10 years ago. Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre met in an ‘inventor’s class’ and developed an insulation material from agricultural waste and fungus, which their professor encouraged them to turn into a product. That biodegradable mushroom packaging idea has grown into the sustainable goods company Ecovative, which counts furniture and home goods giant Ikea amongst their latest clients.
In making the packaging, agricultural waste like corn husks is first gathered from local farmers and cleaned and bagged with fungus. The fungus eats the waste and forms small matrices of roots (mycelium) around each particle. After a few days, the mix is broken up and poured into packaging molds, where the mycelium grows into specific shapes. These bricks are removed, treated to prevent further growth, and are then ready for use. Once used, they can be composted at home and easily biodegrade in the garden.
Now, in 2016, Ecovative’s mushroom packing has been confirmed for use by Ikea in the company’s efforts to increase sustainability. Considering the breadth of Ikea’s distribution, as well as other major multinational Ecovative clients like Dell, this simple yet effective solution is well on its way to having a positive and widespread impact on reducing the amount of nonbiodegradable polystyrene globally.