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Magic Mushrooms

Green Island’s Ecovative uses fungus to creatively reduce the need for Styrofoam and other synthetic products

by Erin Pihlaja on April 18, 2012


Gavin McIntyre wants to take away all of your plastics. And your foams. He won’t stop until he’s rid the world of the foam bumper on your car, the insulation panels in your home, and your flip-flops. That’s right, your precious little flip-flops. He’s not alone, either.

About five years ago, McIntyre and his partner Eben Bayer started a company called Ecovative. What began in a commandeered basement lab at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has grown into an operation that employs 48 full-time staff members and a number of part-timers. Ecovative is now housed in two buildings in a tech park in Green Island, and McIntyre and Bayer don’t plan on slowing down. “We’re definitely here to save the world. We’re out to replace all plastics,” McIntyre says.

Photo by Erin Pihlaja

Ecovative uses a fungus, or mushroom, to create a natural substitute for synthetic, petroleum-based products like Styrofoam. The fungus eats agricultural waste such as corn husks, oats, and buckwheat to create new mycelium, the vegetative part of the fungus. The mycelium acts as a binding agent or glue. After it is molded, heated, and dried, the resulting product is ready to go. It can be made to be hard or flexible, and is naturally fire retardant and hydrophobic.

“Normally when you tell people that you’re making materials out of mushrooms, they think you’re talking about magic mushrooms and that we’re all just a bunch of space cadets,” McIntyre says. “But we really are some hardcore engineers and scientists just trying to make the world a better place.”

Their ideals are starting to gain some serious attention. “We’re growing pretty quick,” McIntyre says. “We’ve just partnered with the Sealed Air company, which is the largest protective packaging company in North America, and we’re looking to open up a couple of their facilities throughout the United States.” Ecovative’s Earth-loving ideas are spreading.

“I didn’t really think about sustainability before coming here, or about the way that we live and how hurtful it is to the environment,” says Lucy Gretham, a part of Ecovative’s research and development team. “I think it’s amazing. It has drastically changed my life over the past eight months.” Gretham, an RPI graduate and resident of Troy, now bikes to the Green Island plant frequently instead of driving. She also recently acquired some chickens and planted a large garden in her backyard. When she isn’t planting she is encouraging people in her community to start their own gardens.

Gretham says she doesn’t plan on leaving the company anytime soon. “I can’t imagine going anywhere else,” she says. “The main problem is getting people to leave at the end of the day here.”

“We’re really lucky. Most people say, ‘I wish I worked at this place.’ We get to work at that place,” says Sam Harrington, an Ecovative employee in sales and marketing. Harrington has been with the company for about four years. “I wasn’t willing to take a corporate cubicle job, I wanted to do something to change the world. We’re working with big names in protective packaging: Dell, Puma, and Crate & Barrel. We’re replacing thousands of plastic and foam packaging parts.”

Harrington is especially looking forward to the launch of a “grow-it-yourself” kit that is in the works. “Since the beginning people have asked, ‘How can we do it at home?’ Now we’ve come up with a system where you can bring our product to life in your kitchen and mold it any way that you want,” he says.

“The general attitude here is progressive. There are lots of conversations about planting, growing vegetables at home, composting, and eating organically. It’s a very open-minded environment—we are constantly sharing ideas about the innovation of new products,” says Joe Tarantino, a fermentation biologist at Ecovative.

“Before I came here, I thought a lot about how I wanted to spend my time,” he says. “I wanted to do research on how humanity reacts with the world—that is what Ecovative affords me. I think it’s really exciting to live in this time. If humanity persists into the future, they’ll look back at this time and thank us. It’s great to be a part of the change.”

The sharing of ideas and research is actually company policy. “Part of our culture here is our 10-percent time,” McIntyre says. “Everyone at Evocative has 10 percent of their time allocated to doing their own project, something that they find interesting and that fits within the core values of the company. It doesn’t matter who you are, whether you’re the office manager or a research biologist, if you’ve got a really good idea for the material go ahead and play with it.”

Styrofoam is a petroleum-based product, meaning that it is dependent on a dwindling resource whose price is continually rising. The Environmental Protection Agency lists irritation of mucous membranes, headaches, depression, and hearing loss among the health risks associated with exposure to styrene. The EPA’s website also states that, “Several epidemiologic studies suggest there may be an association between styrene exposure and an increased risk of leukemia and lymphoma.” On top of all of that, Styrofoam is not biodegradable. Once it fills up our landfills, it’s here to stay.

That’s not the case over at Ecovative. “All of our products are home compostable, so you can break it up and put it in your backyard. It’s a great mulch,” McIntyre says.

Seat cushions, coffee cups, surfboards—it seems as if everything around us is made of synthetic plastics and foams. You may not be ready for change, but it is coming, and if the team at Ecovative have their way, there will be a lot more mushrooms in all of our sustainable futures.