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TEDGlobal: Growing away from styrofoam

Anne Quito tells us that she discovered a Warhol – a signed screen print – which she’d walked past in her office for seven years without noticing it. Discovering this for her was subtle, but epic. She works in an office with an art collection spread throughout the building, uncurated and largely undiscovered. It’s everywhere and nowhere, and sometimes in the way.

The cow she shows us is a fragment of wallpaper, part of a Warhol exhibition. What a great metaphor for how art disappears in her office. Ever since her moment of eye contact with Warhol’s cow, she’s spent her Monday lunch hours walking the building with coworkers, discovering the art. They’ve discovered a David Hockney and two Rauschenbergs hidden in a corner. They also found a white board penholder, which looked like art.

There are many things to discover when you look closer and even more when you look together.

Eben Bayer (@ebenbayer) of ecovative design makes packaging out of seed hulls and mushroom roots. He asks us to think about synthetic materials like plastics. They use a huge amount of energy and take a long time to decompose, which means they’re polluting our environment.

Bayer suggests we think of Styrofoam as “toxic white stuff”. The material that protected your computer contains about the energy of 1.5 gallons of petrol. It will be used for only a few weeks. And by volume, it occupies about 25% of our landfills. It takes thousands of years to decompose. If it finds itself in the ocean, it floats perpetually, until it’s broken into small particles in the Great Plastic Gyre.

To make better materials, we need to think about three things:

Feedstocks – we use the same material for our feedstock as we for transportation, which is insane

Energy – we need to use far less energy and CO2 for these materials

Recycling – we need to think about materials that can return to the earth without preprocessing, like human bodies do.

When trees are done with their leaves – those amazing photon processors – it drops them and they’re “upcycled” into next year’s topsoil. And mushrooms are nature’s recyclers.

Bayer looks specifically at mycelium, which is the mushroom’s root system. It’s able to turn woody waste into a chitinous substance that’s useful as a glue. They’re grown from natural products and are completely compostable with no preprocessing.

He walks us through the future of packaging. We choose a locally available feedstock, put in into a mold, then add mycelium. When we remove the mold, we’ve locally manufactured a plastic-like, biodegradable product. In China, you might use rice husks – in the US, oat hulls. A video makes clear that it’s a bit more complex – the hulls (cotton husks) are cleaned, washed and injected with the mycelium. They fill the molds, and we see packaging corner blocks grow in a dark room for five days. It’s very strange – the manufacturing facility is, basically, a room for growing chitinous polymer matrix… mushrooms.

A major Fortune 500 company is now using these corner blocks to protect tables that they ship. Customers can discard these blocks and they’ll improve the local soil.

Multiple feedstocks is important – we don’t want to see the age of peak rice hulls. Self assembly is critical, because it’s a very low-energy manufacturing process. The yield rates are very high, because the materials not converted become part of the polymer. And the outcome is completely disposeable and will disappear in the foreseeable future.