Field of Science

Styrofungus, mycolastic - saving us from styrofoam

To interplanetary archeologists our particular civilization will probably be know as the "styrofoam makers".  Styrofoam and its cousin polystrene (those white coffee cups, packing "peanuts", and fast-food clam-shell containers) are for all their convenience almost forever because nothing out there has the enzymes needed to decompose this stuff, so it tends to last, and accumulate.  Worse, when it does eventually breakdown, polystrene breaks down into its monomers, styrene, a know carcinogen.  On one hand you have to admire our bravery in drinking and eating out of these containers, but ignorance is bliss, so pass the asbestos platter and let's eat!  These foamy plasticy things are great because of their strength and very light weight, so each and every one of us has unpacked something we bought that had those foamy form-fitting inserts to hold the object in place in the center of a carton.  While excellent for this particular use, this is stuff has to be on the top 10 list of least green products.  Wouldn't it be nice if someone found a substitute product?  Well, a couple of guys out of RPI (Rensslaer Polytechnic Institute) are growing a fungal based alternative.  The basic recipe is plant waste material (think shredded corn stalks) and a fungal mycelium, a bit of the filamentous body of a fungus that you typically don't see because it's growing under ground or in dead wood.  Add water put into a form and the mycelium grows until it fills the space.  Dry it out and voila, you've got a tough, light packing material custom-made to pack that Italian espresso maker you've ordered online.  The best thing is that this biomaterial will break down quickly.  The product is being made by Ecovative Design, sort of a nifty name.  TPP learned of this via an article in the New Yorker published about 2 weeks ago.  Wonder if it would make a good soil additive because if so we could begin to solve the peat moss problem at the same time.  Remember this slogan, "Better living through fungus."

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