The Death of Styrofoam?

04/14/2010 5:00 AM |

In order to grow Ecocradle, all one really needs is darkness, H2O, and bio-waste (rice hulls or seed husks that Eben plans to source locally). And of course MycoBond, aka the roots of a proprietary North Eastern mushroom, which works by growing around the particles and acting as the glue between the discarded materials. Electricity is only needed at the beginning of the process, to steam-clean the feed-stock of any alien spores or contaminates, and not for very much longer. Gavin, who worked on optical apparatuses for the Large Hadron Collider’s little brother in the US before helping to start Ecovative, is spearheading a project funded by the NSF to investigate the essential oils found in most herbs. Gavin has discovered that a solution of rosemary or thyme extract and water will clean their seed husks better than any power-hungry steam process ever could. Gavin and Eben want to take their plant off the grid, and they are getting close.

The Factory

The Ecovative Research facility is situated in a nondescript corrugated brown metal building off Cohoes Road. Inside, engineers tool around the factory floor on home-modified razor scooters, whizzing by a conference room painted forest green, with notices for mass bike rides tacked onto corkboard; a replica of Darth Vader’s helmet, sculpted from Ecocradle material, sits in the lobby.

The molding and filling apparatus, which only takes up one-fifth of the total floor space, is built entirely out of repurposed materials: a trashed steel riveter from a department store, a re-tooled asparagus blancher as the cleaning apparatus, along with various other homemade contraptions of uncertain purpose. Eben and Gavin are essentially starting from scratch with their invention, and the prospect is not without risks. “The first ones in on something always have problems,” says Gavin. “Luckily, we have a broad array of patents.”

Currently there is no scientific limit on the applications of their material, though Eben is strictly against any military use. Ecocradle meets all required “drop and cushion” standards for the shipping industry. And just like Styrofoam, Eben can cater to anyone’s needs: “We can change the weight and density by changing the growth conditions and initial packing density. The process is completely tunable.” On top of all that, when you throw Ecocradle away, it disappears in almost as little time as it takes to make—better yet, throw it in your garden and forgo the composting aids this year.

Ecovative Design may spark a revolution in waste management theory or a specific industry turn-around in packaging; it may just become another option to choose from. Hopefully, it will be all three. But can you eat it? Eben smiled, “Technically, it is edible, but it’s the seed hulls and husks, the stuff the animals won’t even eat.”

The Industry

When Eben and Gavin started Ecovative in 2007, the proverbial shit—and not the good kind that mushrooms grow on—had hit the economic fan. “It was virtually impossible to find investment capital,” Eben said of starting up. “There was a 15K grant and we got 25K from one investor, but that was it.” As any entrepreneur will tell you, 40 grand to start a business is next to nothing.

Another problem that Eben began to encounter was the use of the word “green” in his pitches. “There was opposition to using the word green to market us,” he said. Why? Well “green” usually means “too expensive to justify” or “impractical for mass production,” or worse yet, both. Eben changed the pitch a bit, touting Ecocradle as an efficient product that just happened to be green, and it worked, allowing them to get a better foothold in the investment world. Though Eben isn’t allowed to say who just yet, they’re currently speaking to at least two Fortune 500 companies about switching from traditional Styrofoam packing to Ecocradle, contracts that could help catapult Eben and Gavin’s bedroom experiment to the big leagues. The traditional chemical industry, however, isn’t going to go down without a fight.

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.