fantastic fungus the sustainable alternative to styrofoam lies at the root of mushrooms

Letter From the Director:

When I began this project, I had a great interest in discovering new scientific processes that are revolutionizing the manufacturing of plastic. I had a particular interest in the production of polystyrenes, which are used to make plastics that are marketed as disposable. In the US, we currently produce nearly 19 million pounds of polystyrene a year. A small portion of that is recycled, but most of this disposable waste ends up in landfills and the ocean, where it takes more than 500 years to decompose.

Health effects of contact with Polystyrene is also a concern. The 2012 report from Clean Water Action found that 100% of Americans have Styrene in their bodies, mostly contracted through contact with food held in Styrofoam containers. Fat content, temperature and acidity are all factors for facilitating migration of the chemicals from the containers into the food they carry.

These chemicals pose especially serious health risks to workers. Bioaccumulation (build-up of chemicals in the body) is a significant factor in the degree of risk posed on human health, depending on how frequently a person comes into contact with the chemical through consumption or exposure. 90,000 workers a year are exposed to the toxic effects of Styrene, which can cause symptoms such as skin irritation, gastrointestinal and respiratory problems, and over time can do damage to the nervous system, causing depression, headaches, and fatigue.

When I read the 12 Principles of Cradle-to-Cradle design (C2C), it struck me as a fundamentally different approach to making things. Being a maker myself, it is instructive to me to think about the connectivity of my work to the work of others and the world at large. I found that C2C design principles apply to art making as much as they apply to manufacturing. Avoiding harmful materials, limiting the creation of waste, disposing of waste in a sustainable way, and finding a new life for the waste we generate are basic principles that can be applied to all different kinds of human creation.

As I began to study C2C, I started to grasp the concepts and wanted to be able to bring them to a broader audience. At the start, I had a lot of questions. What is a Cradle-to-Cradle design cycle? How does it differ from a Cradle-to-Grave design cycle? What are the Cradle-to-Grave products I encounter in my daily life? What are the environmental and health impacts of a Polystyrene Cradle-to-Grave design cycle? What kinds of problems does a Cradle-to-Cradle design cycle help to solve? Where does one find Cradle-to-Cradle designed products?

As I set out to answer these questions for myself, I began to realize these are questions that many people want answered. I believe it is vital that C2C principles have a media outlet that increases the accessibility of information within the general population. I am especially interested in reaching America's youth. They are the future minds who will pick up the torch and continue the work of sustainability. It is crucial that they be exposed to new ideas about production and begin to integrate these principles intuitively.

The C2C method takes a holistic approach to creation, and challenges us to "remake the way we make things". I hope to make these principles accessible and understandable, and inspire people to integrate this way of thinking into their own processes of creation.

Eleanor Sydelle, Director

the art of making things

Humans like to make things. It's in our nature. As far back as we can trace human history, humans have been modifying materials from the world around them to make things that are useful and pleasing.

(left to right: early bronze age pottery, cave paintings at Lascaux, oldest found hand tools from Kenya)

When humans began making things, they followed a very simple process:

  • Make a product
  • Distribute product to users
  • Use the product
  • Discard the product

In the 1700s, the introduction of electricity and the invention of machinery sparked an Industrial Revolution, and forever changed the way humans make things.

Humans began making things on a large-scale, following the same small-scale model as before:

  • Make a product
  • Distribute product to users
  • Use the product
  • Discard the product

By using machines, people could make more things very quickly, and so people began using things at a very fast pace, and even made products that were meant to be thrown away

The products created through this model are fundamental to modern life. Virtually everything we use everyday, from electronics, to household appliances, motor vehicles, clothing and textiles, packaging materials, toys, books, cleaning products, personal hygiene products, building materials, and more, are all made in a factory following the same production process

Let's look at a one example:

the styrofoam cup

Styrofoam is a combination of chemicals that are bonded together and shaped into useful forms through a manufacturing process

Design processes like the production of Styrofoam have been described as Cradle to Grave processes. Material is taken from its original location (its cradle), is made into something useful, and ends up in the trash (the grave)

Cradle to Grave design processes have numerous consequences:


Styrofoam products are made of Polystyrene, a compound chemical produced by mixing Petroleum with Styrene or Benzine. Petroleum, commonly known as oil, is a non-renewable material obtained by drilling into the ground, which has well-documented negative environmental impacts


The production of polystyrene products is powered by electricity. This electricity is generated by capturing the energy of burned non-renewable fossil fuels, which has numerous well-documented negative environmental and health impacts


Petroleum, Styrene, and Benzine are all toxic to humans and pose numerous health risks for workers, such as damage to the respiratory tract, the gastrointestinal system, and the central nervous system


The vast majority of polystyrene products are deposited into a landfill at the end of their lifecycle, or end up in the ocean; this poses numerous risks to wildlife

what things are made of polystyrene?

Polystyrene is not just found in Styrofoam. Most of the plastic products we use everyday contain Polystyrene in some form:

220 million tons of trash is generated in The United States each year...that's equivalent to an army of 36,670,000 elephants!

This is a big problem. What can we do?

Remaking the way we make things

Cradle to Cradle design (C2C) is a new method of production, designed by architects William McDonough and Michael Braungart

Following nature's model, the design strategy strives to ensure that nothing is wasted, nothing is toxic, and everything can be reused.

The Cradle-to-Cradle design method follows 12 Principles

Let's look at a replacement for styrofoam that follows the 12 Principles of C2C

Mushroom MycoFoam

Principle 1 : Designers need to strive to ensure that all materials and energy inputs and outputs are inherently as non-hazardous as possible

Mycofoam utilizes agricultural waste as a building block and is held together with mycelium; organic vegetative fungus filaments

Principle 2 : It is better to prevent waste than to treat or clean up waste after it is formed

Mycofoam is biodegradable, decomposes in about 5 days, and adds nutritional value to soil composition

Principle 3 : Separation and purification operations should be designed to minimize energy consumption and materials use

Mycofoam is designed to be self sufficient in its durability, waterproof, and fire resistant capabilities, depending on the needs of the product

Principle 4 : Products, processes and systems should be designed to maximize mass, energy, space and time efficiency

Mycofoam grows itself, and requires no electricity to grow; the molds the foam is grown in can be used again and again without a great deal of wear and tear, and can even be grown at home

Principle 5 : Products, processes and systems should be "output pulled" rather than "input pushed" through the use of energy and materials

Mycofoam production is focused and committed to producing products to fill a human need. This is differs from most C2G processes, in which the rate of production is determined by the availability of material. This produces an rate of production that exceeds the rate of consumption, and creates a surplus and waste. Mycofoam production requires special ordering on a bulk scale, ensuring the scale of production is driven by demand for a particular product or a specific need

Principle 6 : Embedded entropy and complexity must be viewed as an investment when making design choices on recycle, reuse, or beneficial disposition

Mycofoam biodegrades into a nutrient rich compost solution in about 5 days when exposed to organic material and moisture, so it has a useful and chemically harmless second life

Principle 7 : Targeted durability, not immortality, should be a design goal

Mycofoam is more flexible than styrofoam, which increases its durability, yet can decompose in days when exposed to soil and moisture

Principle 8 : Design for unnecessary capacity or capability (e.g., "one size fits all") solutions should be considered a design flaw

Mycofoam is available in kits that facilitate in-home-production, and is designed to be customized to fit a specific needs

Principle 9 : Material diversity in multicomponent products should be minimized to promote disassembly and value retention

Mycofoam is a single component product, and when paired with other materials, can be easily removed

Principle 10 : Design of products, processes and systems must include integration and interconnectivity with available energy and materials flows

Mycofoam uses agricultural waste as a building block for mycelium roots

Principle 11 : Products, processes and systems should be designed for performance in a commercial "afterlife"

Mycofoam biodegrades into a rich compost, which put nutrients back into the soil and helps grow more food

Principle 12 : Material and energy inputs should be renewable rather than depleting

Mycofoam production sources at least 50% of its electrical power from sustainable energy sources, such as wind or solar power

mycofoam c2c cycle

By using Mycofoam in place of Styrofoam, we can greatly reduce the amount of waste we create, and utilize a product that puts nutrients back into the environment instead of toxins. We can reduce emissions from energy use, and provide a workplace that is free of toxic chemical exposure for workers. Consumers can use a product that is natural, safe, free of toxins, and help us avoid contact with harmful chemicals.

Mycofoam is just one of many innovative products that has been designed using the C2C design cycle. The Cradle-To-Cradle Products Innovation Institute has created a website where you can find all different kinds of C2C certified products and learn about the incredible difference you can make as a consumer

What C2C products will you use?

Created By
Eleanor Bailey

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