The Death of Styrofoam?

04/14/2010 5:00 AM |

The Plan

Eben Bayer graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 2007, a dual major in Mechanical Engineering and Product Design and Innovation; he is now the CEO and cofounder, along with fellow RPI grad Gavin McIntyre, of Ecovative Design. As I let Gavin out of the sliding door (it only opens from the outside), he explains that he leaves for DC in a few hours to meet with the National Science Foundation about possible funding. Eben has just returned from Europe and needs to be back at the lab for a client call in 40 minutes; as we sit down, both order coffee. “I wanted to fly back tonight, but they book the tickets,” Gavin says. “The government always wants to give you a hotel,” adds Eben. I nod, pretending to feel their pain. With the beginning of Ecovative and the invention of their MycoBond technology, Eben and Gavin are on the cusp of a plastics revolution, so it’s no surprise that everybody wants to talk to them. By creating a self growing bio-material that does exactly what Styrofoam can do, at almost half the expended energy and the same cost, this could be the end of, as Eben calls it, that “toxic white stuff,” and potentially an entire industry.

Eben was born and raised in Vermont on his parents’ farm outside of Killington, which at one point accounted for more than one percent of Vermont’s maple syrup output. Growing up in the north country gave Eben an appreciation for the natural world, and also introduced him to the very thing that, years later, would be an essential part of his breakthrough in materials: mushrooms.

After graduating, Eben worked for Applied Research Associates designing the armor for humanitarian de-mining devices. The job was interesting, and helped him to gain an understanding of how to protect delicate mechanisms, while at the same time posing a tricky question: How do you create protective material that’s tough enough to actually protect, yet environmentally sustainable? “Binding agents are always the problem when creating bio-mass,” Eben says, “The question became, how do you grow a glue?” It was then that Eben recalled his youth in Vermont, and the curious bonding power of mushroom roots.

After lunch, on the way back to the factory, Eben and Gavin discuss the week’s meetings and phone calls at a furious clip, their thoughts only half articulated to each other, but somehow understood. I have a hard time following. The rain is coming down pretty heavily now, and Eben never seems to hit the breaks, as numerous test products and mushroom derivations roll around the van. I joke nervously that maybe they could repair the dented van with Ecocradle. Gavin responds, in earnest, “90 percent of cars are made out of plastics and foam.” Eben smiles, “We’re already on it.”

The Formula

Eben and Gavin started cooking up the mushroom mixtures that would eventually become Ecocradle in Gavin’s kitchen, growing the stuff under his bed. “Another problem with bio-mass is that it never does the same thing twice,” Eben said about starting to experiment with mushrooms. “You can try a hundred different approaches and only one may work.” This arrangement worked for a time, but they needed more space, along with a cleaner workroom to avoid contamination. Given the tech they now have, and the state of his dorm room, Gavin is surprised they even got anything to work at all. They came across an old dark room in the basement at the RPI Incubator where they had some classes together. The dusty space had a ventilator hood and cleanable metal surfaces; it was exactly what they needed to continue their work.

7 Comment

  • This is amazing. Good job, fellas!

  • they were featured on an episode of some green home design show! so awesome!

  • i know Gavin we went to the same school – that kid is real smart.

  • No authoritative or regulatory body anywhere in the world classifies styrene to be a known cause of human cancer. Moreover, a study conducted by a “blue ribbon” panel of epidemiologists and published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (November 2009) reports: “The evidence of human carcinogenicity of styrene is inconsistent and weak. On the basis of the available evidence, one cannot conclude that there is a causal relationship between styrene and any type of human cancer.”

    Priscilla Briones for the Styrene Information and Research Center (SIRC), Arlington, Virginia. SIRC ( is a trade association that represents interests of the North American styrene industry with its mission being the collection, development, analysis and communication of pertinent information on styrene.

  • Met you in Trader Joe’s this morning. check out
    Love the article!

  • @Priscilla

    As per the EPA’s website (…) :

    – Several epidemiologic studies suggest that there may be an association between styrene exposure and an increased risk of leukemia and lymphoma. However, the evidence is inconclusive due to multiple chemical exposures and inadequate information on the levels and duration of exposure.

    -IARC has classified styrene as a Group 2B, possibly carcinogenic to humans. (12)
    -Styrene oxide is a reactive metabolite of styrene and shows positive carcinogenic results in oral exposure bioassays. Styrene oxide has been detected in workers exposed to styrene. IARC has classified this metabolite as a Group 2A, probable human carcinogen. (7,12)
    -EPA does not have a carcinogen classification for styrene; the chemical currently is undergoing an EPA Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) review to establish such a classification.

    I stand corrected, sort of…

    … Though it is not a proven fact that Styrene is a carcinogen, it is most definitely not proven that it is not- with most evidence pointing to, yes, of course it is. And while the EPA may not recognize it officially as a carcinogen, it is safe to say that this stuff is not made of marshmallows. Its only a matter of time before it becomes official and you can bet your ass that the scientists who conducted the tests on this stuff consider it to be a “known” carcinogen. Despite the criss crossing governmental vetting system that oil companies are able to hide behind to protect the good name of their ingredients, the fact remains that the “toxic white stuff” is terrible, the truth will out, and you just don’t care about the earth.

  • Misrepresenting styrene’s carcinogenicity is not the only thing wrong with this article. Here are a few more:

    –Polystyrene is not the most common plastic. That would be polyethylene.

    –Styrofoam is an extruded polystyrene made by Dow and used only in building insulation applications. Gavin and Eben are going after expandable polystyrene, a different product made a different way. This is the product used to mold cups, coolers, packaging and the like.

    –Neither extruded nor expandable polystyrene are made by combining polystyrene with benzene and gasoline. I don’t know where you got this. This is how it goes, in short: benzene is reacted with ethylene to make ethylbenzene, which is converted to styrene. Styrene is reacted with itself (polymerized) to make polystyrene. To make expandable polystyrene, polystyrene beads are instilled with a gas, usually pentane, so that when they are heated the gas expands and the beads get soft and puffy and stick together in the shape (cup, shipping container, etc.) that you mold them to.

    –“The only method available for the packaging of fragile goods over 15 lbs for shipping”? That sounds bizarre to me–is this some kind of postal or insurance industry regulation?–but I suppose it could be true.

    That said, Ecocradle sounds like a cool product.