They drive a banged-up, forest-green minivan, more deadbeat soccer mom than twenty-something inventor. The front passenger door creaks as I open it, feeling like it might come off in my hand. A colorful tangle of wires hangs from under the glove box, catching my backpack as I try to get my seatbelt on. The inside of the van smells like a garden after a spring rain: vegetables and topsoil.
Eben Bayer climbs in the driver side and smiles at me beneath a mop of light brown hair, “We once had grass growing in the front of this thing,” he says. “Not on purpose, though,” Gavin McIntyre adds from the bench seat in the back. Gavin has black hair and wears a patchy layer of stubble across a face framed by square, black-rimmed glasses and assorted piercings. He goes on to explain, as if it could happen to anyone, that some of their seed stock had fallen into various nooks and crannies in the van and had started to grow. I nod as we pull out of the parking lot in Green Island, New York, just north of Albany, and make a left turn onto a wet county road, heading to a local pub for lunch. I’ve been kidnapped by green inventors.
Rain falls lightly on the roof, barely audible as the conversation veers from R&D meetings to thermo molds to wind turbines. Some impressively technical stuff—at least if the car breaks down, I think, these guys can probably fix it. As the van corners sharply onto the interstate, a 10-inch piece of what looks like molded off-white Styrofoam, with curious pieces of brown bark and particulates laced throughout, slides across the dashboard and comes to a rest on the beat-up glove box in front of me. I pick it up and turn it around in my hands; it’s a little rough, but otherwise feels exactly like Styrofoam. “Sorry,” Eben says, taking it off my hands and tossing it in the back of the car, “It’s everywhere.” The material in question is called Ecocradle, an invention of Eben and Gavin’s, and it just might save the world.
This may sound like a big claim for something that looks like a dirty piece of old Styrofoam, but that’s the point; Ecocradle could very well spell the end of old-fashioned Styrofoam, and all its attendant environmental evils.
A molecule of styrene, when combined with other molecules of the same polymer, creates polystyrene—the most common chemical used to make plastics and resins. When heated and combined with benzene and gasoline, polystyrene can be foamed and used to make extruded polystyrene or EPS, which is universally known by its DOW Chemical trademark… Styrofoam. Though heightened eco-consciousness over the last decade has increasingly marginalized Styrofoam as a “food-delivery system,” it remains the only method available for the packaging of fragile goods over 15 lbs for shipping, which means tens of thousands of pounds of the stuff cross the United States in the mail everyday.
Not incidentally, the same combination of chemicals that creates Styrofoam, minus the foaming process, will produce a slow burning, high-heat output petroleum jelly or what is more commonly known as napalm. Yup, napalm. But that’s far from the worst thing about EPS: for starters, it’s not biodegradable nor is it a candidate for mass recycling; it can’t be reused or broken down; oh, and styrene is a known carcinogen. Though we may not be able to see them anymore, the tiny beads of polystyrene that make up the larger EPS product remain in the environment, small enough to enter the food we eat, and, as a result, our blood. With Ecocradle, Eben and Gavin believe they have the solution to our Styrofoam woes.