In an age where many oil fields are in terminal decline and our dependence on petroleum reaches critical proportions, it is simply crazy that with every Styrofoam-packaged item consumers purchase, one cubed foot of Styrofoam representing 1.5 liters of petrol is thrown away. Moreover, in the U.S., Styrofoam is said to take up 25 percent of the space in landfills. A much better-sounding alternative is to use naturally-produced EcoCradle. It's created from useless agricultural by-products and mushroom roots, has all the same properties as other expandable polystyrene (EPS), and is fully compostable.

The EcoCradle production process begins by identifying a locally-sourced economically useless by-product from agriculture, for instance corn husks in China, buckwheat husks and oat hulls in the U.S., or soybean husks in Spain. They are cleaned, cooked, cooled and pasteurized with basic equipment and inoculated with mycelium, the root systems of mushrooms. The material is then pressed into a mold for whatever the end-product will be. Over the next five days, the filamentous mycelium use the energy in the agri-wastes to self-assemble a biocomposite chitinous polymer matrix of lignin and cellulose, made from millions of tiny fibers and the husks that don't get digested.

The material itself can have many of the same properties we would expect from Styrofoam. It can be insulating, fire-retardant, moisture-resistant, vapor-resistant, and can absorb mechanical and acoustical impacts. It can be used for heavy items, or for shipping food and perishables – by changing the seed husk, material properties such as density, resilience, surface finish, feature resolution and the look of the material can be altered to suit. It's reliable, easy to use and compares favorably with other custom-molded foams like EPS in density. Furthermore it is cost-competitive with existing synthetics.

Eco-Cradle has four main principals:

  • It uses a local, cheap and otherwise useless feedstock. Food crops or bio-fuel crops are avoided
  • The material is self-assembling, requiring no manufacturing, petroleum, or water and grows efficiently utilizing nature's own processes in about 5-7 days
  • The input material and output final product is the same, therefore 100 percent biological yield is achieved
  • The use of natural polymers have been in use for millions of years, and therefore are not going to damage Earth's ecosystems
  • As if it didn't already tick all the green boxes, the final product can actually contribute to your local ecosystem as it is fully compostable, and if broken up and used as mulch in your garden will improve soil moisture retention and add nutrients. Additionally, it is anaerobically compostable, so there is minimal ecological impact if you send it to a landfill where it can decompose without the presence of oxygen.

    There are no allergens, as the process doesn't use any spores, and since both the growth of the material and the decomposition of the material are 100 percent natural, they need neither heat or pressure, and use ten times less energy than traditional materials. The price of this and other polystyrene alternatives is also not linked to the volatile prices of oil and gas.

    Ecovative has patented its EcoCradle product and it is already available for purchase. It is growing the product at a pilot plant on Green Island, New York, using hydroelectric power that produces no greenhouse gas emissions. Eben Bayer of Ecovate will be speaking at a number of events around the U.S. in November.

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