I make styrofoam. What’s your superpower?


A few months ago, I wrote about Ecovative, a company that uses mushroom roots and plant waste to make a styrofoam-like material that is 100% biodegradable. (I won’t rehash all the cool properties and benefits of the products here, but go read my original post if you haven’t already–it’s really a fascinating concept.)

Since then, I have been following Ecovative, and I recently learned that they were beta-testing a “grow it yourself” kit so you can make your own mushroom-foam-like objects. I, of course, jumped at the chance to try out the product.

When I ordered the kit, I was instructed to start thinking about what I wanted to make. Because the mushroom product arrives “alive,” you need to use it within a couple days or refrigerate it. We don’t have a lot of extra fridge space, plus I’m really impatient as it is, so I tried thinking up some easily-implemented ideas. As it turns out, it’s really hard to come up with styrofoam-type things to make. Finally I decided on a small bowl and a couple Christmas ornaments. Then I waited impatiently for my mushroom kit to arrive.

On the day my package came in the mail, I was giddy. My husband, on the other hand, didn’t share my enthusiasm. “Remind me again why I should be excited about this,” he grumbled.

I explained that the whole thing was amazing. You could make useful or, at the very least, decorative, objects out of stuff that would ordinarily be thrown away. I could, with my very two hands and some stuff that looks like small wet wood chips, create something that is ordinarily created with petroleum and specialized machinery. It was like having a superpower. (Call me Super FunGal!)

I brushed aside my husband’s ambivalence, grabbed my 7-year-old, and got to work.

I was amazed by how much of the live mushroom product we received. I thought we’d get enough to make a couple tiny objects, but the kit arrived with enough matter to line a Regent in EPS-like foam. Sadly, I had no Regent shells or else I might have tried it.

As I said, the mushroom material looked and felt like tiny moist wood chips…and that’s probably what it was. There are no actual mushrooms in the mix, just the mycelia, which are like the roots of a mushroom. No spores or anything either, so people with allergies don’t need to worry. The material had a bit of an earthy odor to it, but not unpleasant.

I’ll admit that I was a bit hesitant about sinking my hands into the stuff at first, and the hypochondriac in me was certain that I was inhaling toxic spores into my lungs. But I survived with no ill effects, and the mixture was kinda fun to play with.

The instructions said you could press the material into molds as-is, or you could mix it with some of the included plant-based powder and water to make a pliable product (think chunky-style Play-Doh) that could be shaped into whatever you like. We wound up using it both ways.

My son and I molded some Christmas ornaments using cookie cutters. Then we rolled some balls. Then we used the teddy-bear mold that came with the kit. Then I pulled out various containers from the kitchen to make some bowls. Then I sculpted a little mushroom. Then I still had some material left over, but I was running out of vessels and counter space, so I composted the rest.

Once you’re done creating stuff, you place the objects in the included “incubation bags,” seal the bags with clothespins (also included), cut some holes for ventilation, and let the objects sit for a few days. I had to wipe up some condensation and air the bag out a couple times, but the products came along nicely.

Eventually they turn white, and after that happens, you let them keep sitting for a few days. At first I thought I had done something wrong because at the end of the week, my objects didn’t feel like foam. They felt much heavier and rather rubbery. No need to worry, though. The next step, baking the items to stop the growth process, would take care of that.

We were instructed to use the lowest oven setting and bake for 45 minutes, then let them sit in the turned-off oven a while longer. The instructions said we might smell a mushroom-odor while they cooked. As someone who is vehemently repulsed by the taste of mushrooms, I worried about that, but the aroma was actually quite pleasant. It smelled like a combination of baking mushrooms and baking dough–sort of like pizza!

Finally, the objects were finished. After they emerged from the oven, we discovered they did indeed have a feel and consistency very similar to styrofoam. If I didn’t know better, I’d think that’s what they were, other than a few little brown seed-like orbs here and there. (I’m not exactly sure what those are. I’m guessing some of the plant matter. A company representative assured me it was fine, though, so I don’t think anything will sprout from them.)

We did have a couple casualties. The ornaments we crafted in the cookie cutters didn’t turn white as nicely as the others. They turned white on the top and bottom, but the sides stayed brown. I suspect that if I had removed them from the molds sooner, they probably would have whitened up nicely. Alas, no one will be receiving mushroom-foam Christmas ornaments this year. I’m sure friends and family are devastated.

Anyway, this project was a lot of fun, and also educational. If you’re looking for a neat science project, or you want your kid to be the first in school to use mushroom-foam in an egg-dropping competition, or you need to create custom packing material for some reason, definitely look into getting your own kit if/when they make them available for purchase through their online store.

I’m still hoping to see this technology in car seats someday. In the meantime, I’ll have to be satisfied playing catch with our mushroom balls. I just have to make sure the dog doesn’t slobber on them too much, lest they start biodegrading.

One Response

  1. Kat_momof3 May 16, 2012