The Death of Styrofoam?

04/14/2010 5:00 AM |

The American Chemistry Council, a coalition of companies that includes the Solo Cup company, has suggested one way to re-use the polystyrene packaging that they purvey: burning it for fuel: “At over 16,000 BTUs per pound, polystyrene contains twice the energy of coal and burns cleanly.” But this kind of narrow thinking, according to Eben, is typical of an industry that refuses to see the big picture, or can’t.

“These companies do their analysis with a box around their system and don’t look at the whole supply chain,” Eben said. “They need to put their box around the whole earth.” If any company tried to push a product like Styrofoam on the public these days, one that was carcinogenic, non-biodegradable and needed a gallon of gasoline per cubic foot to produce, it would be reviled in public and face political outcry. But EPS products have been grandfathered in. “Ten percent better every year is no good anymore,” says Eben of the major chemical companies’ reach for green status. “If we had started that trend in the 50s we might be ok, but it’s too late to start now,” he concludes, with growing intensity. Eben knows there is no time to make the existing system better, so he hopes to tear down the whole thing, stem the bleeding, and start over.

The Future

Repurposing used bio-mass for material needs is not a new idea, so it’s a wonder that something like Ecocradle hasn’t sprung up sooner. Eben’s search at the patent office turned up nothing even close to what they envisioned for their mycelium. This probably has a lot to do with the size and influence of the EPS industry, but Eben is undaunted—and he’s keeping a close watch on the major players. “We’re keeping detailed life cycle analysis of all of our products as well as full life cycle analysis on theirs,” he says. If there is a showdown between Big Chemical and Ecovative, Eben wants to be ready with hard facts. Not surprisingly, no EPS industry execs want to acknowledge that Ecovative exists. But that probably won’t last long.

Eben plans to create turnkeys, or patent franchises, so that a company could set up low-cost grow facilities in its basement, locally source its own discarded bio matter, and grow its own packaging—the results would be staggering and costly for the Oil Industry, cutting out the need for the Styrofoam middleman. The addition of Gavin’s Essential Oils project will allow for open-air production, and eventually at-home DIY kits. “We want to offer an alternative to plastics in general,” Eben says, as we approach the train station. “The goal is to benefit the planet and the people, while turning a profit, of course.”

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.