In the near future, maybe everything we need will be assembled on the spot in machines like Star Trek‘s replicators, but for now, we’ll have to settle for growing cups, plates, and packing material from food.
A few inventors are working on products that use mushrooms, rice husks, and even agar to create new versions of single-use disposable items. They’re less harmful to the environment and break down into nothing.
Ecovative’s rice-and-mushroom packaging, for example, is intended to replace Styrofoam and uses an eighth of the energy required to make a similar amount of the petroleum-based stuff. And product design consultancy The Way We See The World is working to bring edible drinking glasses made of flavored agar–similar to gelatin–to the consumer market.
Yes, cups from corn and the like have been around for years, but those products have their own problems. Products made from polylactide (PLA)–which can be derived from corn, beets, potatoes or wheat–can’t be recycled with the far more common polyethylene terephthalate (PET) used in soda bottles, and claims that the plastic biodegrades may have been greatly exaggerated. Could a gelatinous tumbler be any different?
Photo courtesy The Way We See The World
For one, the feel is totally different, says Chelsea Briganti, one quarter of The Way We See The World. “It’s slightly rubbery, very soft,” she says. And no, the “Jelloware,” (a term coined by The Way We See The World) made of agar and flavored to complement whatever you’re drinking, doesn’t get sticky.
The group is working with manufacturers right now to try to bring the cups to market. They’re also exploring a heat-tolerant version–right now “Jelloware” can only be used for cold drinks. Either way, when you’re done, you can take a bite out of the glass or chuck it to the earth, where it will decompose within a week.
Another product made from food–sort of–is Ecovative‘s EcoCradle, which is composed of rice husks and fungal mycelium–more or less mushroom roots, explains company founder Gavin McIntyre. His company fills a mold with agricultural waste, like rice husks or cotton gin discards, adds mycelia, and within two weeks the roots have grown to form a dense, lightweight network stronger than styrofoam and ultimately compostable, says McIntyre.
Photo courtesy Ecovative
Currently the process, which Ecovative says takes 1/8th the energy to produce than traditional foam, requires steam-pasteurization and takes place in a cleanroom. This prevents other, less useful mold spores from contaminating the product. But Ecovative is testing a new method that would sterilize the mixture with cinnamon-bark oil, thyme oil, oregano oil and lemongrass oil, compounds that kill bacteria and mold but ones on which Ecovative’s ‘shrooms thrive.
When that tech rolls out–by 2012 or so–not only will the energy consumption of EcoCradle drop to 1/40th that of foam products, but folks will be able to grow their own packing material almost anywhere. “People could do it in their kitchens,” McIntyre says. “With a process like this, you can mix a couple components together, and it’s really like baking bread.