Not Another Piece of Trash: Ecovative Design Partners with Steelcase

Editor’s note: Raquel is an intern at PopTech’s Camden office. She just returned from a semester in Cape Town, South Africa and will graduate in 2011 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a double major in International Studies and Political Science.

Everyone knows that Styrofoam is a top environmental culprit – but few know how to live without it. Its health risks make us uneasy and its manufacture contributes to the destruction of the ozone layer, yet we persist in using this “toxic white stuff” to ship fragile items.

Pop Tech Social Innovation Fellow Eben Bayer is giving us a viable alternative. This month Steelcase Inc., another Pop Tech partner, joined forces with Eben’s company, Ecovative Design, to green up their furniture packaging.

Fashioned out of local agricultural byproducts like cottonseed hulls bound with mushroom roots, EcoCradle packaging requires a fraction of the energy to create, is fully compostable and creates an opportunity for farmers to sell their agricultural byproducts rather than dispose them. We caught up with Eben recently to get the latest.

Ecocradle

Tell us more about your partnership with Steelcase.

We are thrilled to be working with Steelcase. They take sustainability seriously and it shows in the actions they have taken, from sourcing renewable materials and energy to their factories, right up to the work they did with us in replacing their plastic packaging. Styrofoam has many uses.

Why did you choose to focus on packaging?

Our technology has many different implications and applications, from a building material, to packaging, to a new kind of polymer that can be used to make anything from auto parts to consumer goods. We chose packaging as a starting point because the Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) used in this application has the single biggest negative environmental impact compared to its other uses (like insulation). Additionally, it’s a great market to prove out our whole model, from supply chain to manufacturing all the way through to customers and consumers.

How will this deal help you reach Ecovative’s goals and increase your social impact?

We see our contribution coming from making products that are far better than existing materials, using less energy to produce, using wastes or byproducts as feedstocks and materials that have only a positive impact upon disposal. That’s why we have focused so much on being cost competitive, because the only way to have widespread adoption is to compete on every level with what already exists, especially performance and price. Our work with Steelcase is a great example of this model: we replaced an existing foam packaging part with a home compostable alternative, at the same price point.

Why is EcoCradle the most sustainable alternative to Styrofoam?

Three reasons: First, it’s made from byproducts, not precious petroleum. Second, EcoCradle requires far less energy to produce in comparison to the same volume of EPS. Third, it only lasts as long as it needs to. It is absolutely crazy to use a material that lasts 10,000 years to package something that only needs protection for a few weeks. EcoCradle is 100% compostable in your own backyard and will return to your local ecosystem. When people receive our packaging we want them to understand that they aren’t getting another piece of trash, they are actually getting the precursor to fertile soil!

What new products are you developing since we saw you at the PopTech conference last October?

We have funding from the National Science Foundation to develop a radical new cleaning process for the seed husks we use. This process uses naturally occurring plant essential oils and would replace the most energy-intensive step in our process where we cook our feedstocks. Not only does this decrease total energy consumption, but it makes the material much easier to make, really supporting our vision for local manufacturing at any level.

We also have funding from the EPA to continue developing Greensulate™, which is our rigid board insulation, directly replacing the foam used in buildings. We have a few test installations in place in New York state, and are continuing to work on this material. We were also proud that Greensulate™ was featured in the 2010 National Design Triennial at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. In addition, we are cooking up some fun consumer products that we hope to launch later this year that folks can get directly from Ecovative if they want to see the material first hand.

Watch Eben in action at Pop Tech 2009 here.

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