Sunday, May 30, 2010

An Alternative to Styrofoam: It’s Green. It’s locally grown. It’s fungi!

In my last post, I described fungal mycelium and its potential as a building material. On the West Coast the artist Phil Ross used it to create his art.

But on the East Coast, Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre, 2007 graduates of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, have a more practical vision. At Ecovative Design in Green Island, New York, a company they co-founded, these young inventors are creating sheets of Ecocradle™, a packing material with many of the same properties as Styrofoam, but manufactured using 1/10 the energy, and without the petrochemicals.

At Ecovative they mix agricultural byproducts with mycelium, a network of fungal strands, and allow the mixture to to grow in shallow forms in a darkened room for seven days. They then render the product inert with heat. The heating process dries out the product and stops the growth of the fungus. The “skin” apparent on the surface is formed by the fungus, not by the application of any finish coat. If you want the whole story, you can check them out on YouTube.

Ecocradle™ is a good insulator and can be molded to fit any shape, so it’s a natural for shipping bottles of wine, or small electronics, for example. It does not burn, but it does decompose when broken into pieces and put in the garden. Ecocradle™ is not allowed to grow for long enough to fruit and create mushrooms, which is the part of the fungus that produces the spores, so there is no concern about allergens.

The agricultural byproducts currently being used at Ecovative are cotton seed and buckwheat hulls which are essentially without any commercial worth. Company representative Sam Harrington wrote, “We strive to utilize agricultural wastes that have almost no value. We avoid agricultural byproducts that can be used for livestock feed, and because we focus on materials that are high in lignin, they typically can’t be used in cellulosic ethanol processes. The raw material inputs of EcoCradle™ are selected based on regionally available agricultural by-products. So a factory in Texas or China might use cotton seed hulls, and a factory in Virginia or Spain might use rice husks and soybean hulls. By manufacturing regionally, and using local feedstocks, we aim to minimize the trucking of raw and finished materials.” Currently EcoCradle™ is only manufactured in Green Island, but the dream for its future production is a global one.

Using very little energy and no petrochemicals, Bayer and McIntyre have created a viable alternative to Styrofoam from materials considered waste. And at the end of its life, EcoCradle™ can be composted. Their invention, commercially valuable and made from waste, need never become waste. How great is this?

The process is much the same for Greensulate™, a material for home insulation which is also in development. Harrington stated, “EcoCradle™ and Greensulate™ are essentially the same material, but tuned to optimize for R-value or cushioning ability.” Just think, there may come a day soon when you will WANT fungus in your walls.

The company founders have already received a number of grants and honors. EcoCradle™ was named Best of What’s New in 2009 in Popular Science’s Green Technology, and Greensulate™ was featured as a forensic clue on CSI New York.

The Ecovative website store is up and running. For $5.00 you can order a sample of Ecocradle™. You’ve never seen anything like it, and it makes a great show-and-tell for Green Drinks.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Artful Fungi

So, you think you know mushrooms? These mysterious organisms belong to kingdom Fungi, and are more closely related to humans than plants are. Are you aware that a mushroom is actually the spore-producing fruit which springs from a network of fungal hyphae (strands) lying beneath the surface of the ground at one stage of the fungus’s life? Even if you can tell a chanterelle from a portobello, unless you appreciate this vast hidden network, collectively known as mycelium, there is a lot you are missing.

In fact, the largest living organism on the planet is a fungus of the species Armillaria residing underground in eastern Oregon. It is estimated to cover over 2,200 acres and to be at least 2,400 years old. It was discovered when scientists were trying to discern why large groves of evergreen trees were dying.

Mushrooms are currently much in the news. Fungal mycelia have been used in remediating the damage cause by past oil spills and may well play a role in the Gulf. The anti-depressive properties of “magic mushrooms” are being studied under controlled conditions, and the use of mushrooms as pesticides is also being explored. In fact, mushroom authority Paul Stamets believes that mushrooms can help save the world. Check out Mycelium Running to read more.

And, on the West Coast, fungi have inspired a new type of sculpture. The artist Phil Ross, long-interested in “growing” sculptures of natural materials (a 1997 example of his work is shown above), has recently been using mycelium as the structural material for his art. Ross was inspired to work with mycelium by his “experiences as a mushroom hunter and then grower, and seeing how it is similar to a material like plaster or cement that can be cast into more durable forms.”

His efforts came to my attention through an article in Time, which described the teahouse Ross named “Mycotectural Alpha” (right), created for Eating the Universe: Food in Art at the Kunsthalle Museum in Düsseldorf, Germany this past winter.

How he created this piece of art is quite a tale. At the Far West Fungi Farm in Monterey, California, Ross built 400 bricks of fungal material. He first packed sawdust into airtight bags, then steam cooked the packed bags for several hours. The pasteurized wood chips were then cooled and small pieces of Ganoderma lucidum fungus tissue were introduced into each bag. Over the course of several weeks the fungus digested and transformed the contents of each bag into a mass of dense interlocking cells. The bricks were cured for about a month before their assembly into the sculpture. Ross described the final material, “The skin itself is incredibly hard, shatter resistant, and can handle enormous amounts of compression. Shaping and cutting the bricks destroyed our files, rasps and saws.”

Mycelium is not normally eaten, but deconstruction of the sculpture during the course of the exhibition was part of the vision of this piece of art from the start. The sculpture is being brewed into a tea which is being served to museum visitors. Ross wrote in a recent email to me, “It is currently being boiled into a tea right now, though I don't have a good progress report from the museum about its current state. It is in my contract with the museum that it must be entirely destroyed through digestion or other organic processes.”

Ross still works with Far West Fungi with whom he has a “formal collegial relationship.” He currently has no plans for commercial uses for his art, but is “growing a second arch, and intends to grow a full scale building in a few years.”

Check back in a few days to read about mycological happenings in the East, a couple of hours from “the land of steady habits,” where I reside.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Seductive Strawberry

By many accounts, yesterday, May 20, was National Strawberry Picking Day. We are still a few weeks away from being able to pick strawberries in Connecticut, but before too long I’ll be planning a little road trip to pluck some of these beauties.

The strawberry has a truly seductive appearance – a fine shape and a gorgeous color when perfectly ripe. Strawberries are also rich in vitamin C and other compounds with antioxidant capacities. Consumption of strawberries has been shown to lower risk of cancer, age-related macular degeneration, and rheumatoid arthritis, among other ailments.

Since we’re on the subject of fresh strawberries, it seems a good time to share a valuable resource — the Environmental Working Group’s “Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides.” Many of you probably shop for produce the way I do. I try to buy local, organic produce whenever it is available and affordable. But when the organic version can’t be found, or its price is out of sight, I have to make a choice. Do I buy the conventionally-grown product, or do I change my menu?

With the help of this handy pocket-sized guide it is a little easier to make these difficult choices. On the left side is a list of the “Dirty Dozen,” those 12 fruits and vegetables found to contain the most pesticides when conventionally-grown. Strawberries are Number 3. On the right are the “Clean 15,” those fruits and vegetables which contain the least pesticides when conventionally-grown. Buying organic is not as critical for the items in this column. The Environmental Working Group is a non-profit organization founded in 1993 whose mission is to use the power of public information to protect public health and the environment. The guide can be downloaded for free at the group’s site.

In Connecticut there is a great website,, dedicated to helping potential shoppers locate places to purchase or pick seasonal produce and farm products. At the site you enter what you would like to pick or buy, your location, and the miles you are willing to travel. The results include the distance from your location and phone numbers. If you call ahead, you should be able to find out if the crop is pesticide-free. And if it is not, what pesticide has been applied and in what amount. The site will also help you locate caterers, restaurants, CSAs, retailers, and distilleries.

R & M Strawberry HullerPicking your own is a great activity to do with kids. You can’t beat the price. There is no fresher produce than what you pick on your own.  And there are plenty of easy ways to freeze what you can’t eat right away.

Just be sure to wear your hat and apply sunscreen. And if you don’t have one already, get your hands on a strawberry huller. Such a simple tool. Such a small investment. Processing your harvest will be so much easier.

Monday, May 17, 2010

A Tree Grows on State Street

A Gingko (Gingko bilboa) tree is now growing at the corner of State and Elm streets in New Haven, just outside the entrance to Channel 8. I helped plant it on Saturday as part of a work crew made up of volunteers participating in the Yale Day of Service, student interns from the Sound School and Common Ground High School, and interns and staff from Urban Resources Initiative (URI).

This tree was chosen for its grace and hardiness. It’s a male, which means it will never bear the messy and odoriferous fruit which some love to eat but none love to smell. This corner is a tough location for a tree — lots of vehicular and pedestrian traffic and nothing to block the harsh sun. “My” tree occupies the space of a failed predecessor. The Downtown Management Team requested the State Street trees; the Town Green Special Services District has pledged to keep them watered. That is how the program works. A person or group can request a tree or trees, but the request will only be honored if someone makes the commitment to care for them.

Tree planting is hard work. Until I tried it, I did not know how much a root ball weighs, how much effort it takes to dig a hole as deep as the ball and twice as wide, what supplements new trees need (kelp is good), or the many other steps there are to prepare a tree for a long and healthy life in a challenging urban setting.

We planted eight trees today — two Gingkos, two Honey Locusts (Gleditsia triacanthos), two American Lindens (Tilia americana), and two Golden Rain Trees (Koelreuteria paniculata), which will bear fragrant yellow flowers and papery seed pods that look like lanterns. With these trees in the ground, the City of New Haven is well over 1/4 of the way toward achieving its goal of planting 1000 trees by the end of 2010.

This ambitious tree planting program is actually a partnership between the City of New Haven and URI, carried out with the help of volunteers. The City provides the funds for purchase of the trees, volunteers supply the labor, and URI selects the trees, carries out all the logistics, provides training, and supervises the planting. Each summer, with funding from outside groups, URI is able to offer internships to Yale undergraduate and graduate students in environmental studies. This year the program expanded by offering paid internships to students in two city high schools, who planted trees and were trained to supervise volunteers (like me).

American poet Joyce Kilmer wrote at the turn of the last century, “I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree…” Trees also provide homes for birds and wildlife, improve air quality, give shade that cuts down on the need for air conditioning, and calm traffic. 

As a resident, you can request a tree in front of your home, but you have to pledge to care for it. My friends made such a promise and now a Princess Dogwood is growing in front of their home on Pelham Lane.

271 and counting… There is still a way to go to reach 1000 by the end  of November. Trees make the world a better place for us all. Wouldn’t you just love one?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Hair to the Rescue

Efforts to contain the leak from the wreckage of the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico have so far failed. Over 200,000 gallons of crude oil are being spilled into the Gulf each day. And winds are pushing the oil closer to the Mississippi Delta.

Rather than sit idly by while they await the spill’s landfall, Gulf residents are gathering at “Boom B Qs” where they are making sausage shaped booms of human hair and nylon stockings, designed to soak up the oil before it hits land. The residents are supplying the manual labor. San Francisco-based nonprofit Matter of Trust is collecting the materials and providing the initial training. This photo of such a gathering comes from their site: www.matteroftrust.org2

Matter of Trust is the group who mobilized and organized surfers to collect sludge using mats of human hair after the 2008 oil spill in San Francisco Bay. In response to this current emergency, the group is orchestrating an “International Natural Fiber Recycling Movement.” They are collecting hair, fur, and nylons for shipment to the Gulf — “Everyone is welcome!” At the Matter of Trust site you will find clear instructions for shipping materials. They are also looking for monetary donations to cover the cost of the netting in which the booms must be encased.

The response has been huge. After the initial flood of donations caused chaos in the postal system, Matter of Trust has been assigned their own zip codes. On May 7 Petco announced that its nearly 1,000 grooming centers have joined the movement, with hopes of collecting a ton of hair per day. Hanesbrands, Inc. has donated 37,500 pairs of pantyhose to Matter of Trust, and an additional 12,500 pairs to a second group with the same mission, The Sunshine and Shores Foundation in Florida.

This novel use for human hair was pioneered in 1989 by hair stylist Phil McCrory. He was shampooing a client’s hair while watching coverage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill cleanup. McCrory had his eureka moment when he realized, after seeing the oil-soaked fur of an Alaskan otter, “We shampoo because hair collects oil.” McCory decided to try this experiment at home. He stuffed a pair of his wife’s pantyhose with five pounds of hair clippings, and tied it into a ring. He then poured a gallon of used motor oil into a filled kiddie pool and lowered his invention into the water. After he removed the pantyhose two minutes later, the water in the pool was crystal clear.

What a stroke of genius — using such a readily available waste product for bioremediation!

McCrory called his product OttiMat™. His invention (at right) is currently being fabricated in China from purchased hair and a small amount of polypropylene. Durable as well as effective, the mats can be rung out and used again and again. McCrory continues to lend his expertise to Matter of Trust, who hopes to partner with OttiMat™ to make the product in the US.

After the San Francisco oil spill, Matter of Trust worked with mycologists (those who study fungi) to find a way to decontaminate the oil-soaked mats.  Mycelia, the filamentous hyphae or “roots,” of the oyster mushroom (Pleurotus streatus) were introduced to a limited number of mats. The mycelia grew extremely well on this surface, effectively breaking down the petrochemical sludge. The fruiting mushrooms were themselves toxin-free.

For those of you interested in reading more about the exciting field of mycoremediaton, the process of using fungi to restore an environment contaminated by pollutants to its previous state, I suggest this wonderful book: Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, by fungi guru Paul Stamets.

It will be interesting to see whether mycoremediation will be employed to detoxify these newest booms. Sometime soon maybe Gulf shrimp will be replaced by Gulf mushrooms in a market near you.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Google Crisis Response: The BP Oil Spill

On Tuesday Google unveiled a site they created in response to the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico. It contains mapping tools that allow the site user to get a clear picture of the progress of the spill and its impact on the area from a variety of perspectives, as well as links to the latest news on the disaster and ways to help. 

Those with videos of the spill can upload them to YouTube without leaving the site, and they are automatically fed back to the page for viewing, which means there are a huge number of visuals available without a need to search.

Whether you are looking for a quick update on the spill, an in-depth story, or a KML file to download and view in Google Earth, everything can be found here:

Similar pages were created by Google in response to the earthquakes in Haiti and China.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Critical Mass

Pure joy! That’s what I feel when I am zipping down Grove Street to Orange on my Raleigh Super Course (vintage 1972) on a perfect Saturday morning. The wide street is devoid of traffic, so unlike the scene at the same time on a usual workday.

I may not bike as often as I did years ago, but I still love to ride. I no longer commute to work, and with e-mail and pdfs, rarely go to meetings. As for pleasure, I just don’t feel as safe riding as I once did. Where I live, the increase in traffic and the decrease in patience and common courtesy among the drivers are my biggest fears. Yes, there are some bike lanes, but not downtown.  I am glad the New Haven section of the Farmington Canal Trail now connects with Hamden’s, but stretches of this newest link can be a little sketchy depending on the day and time. As a recreational cyclist, the easiest way for me to guarantee a pleasant ride is to wait for the quiet of the weekend or a Spring or Summer evening. I wish I could just hop on my bike anytime and ride without worry.

And what about those cyclists who NEED to get places during the week — those whose bike is their sole means of transport? Cyclists are not allowed to ride on the sidewalk. On the street they are held to the same rules as drivers of motor vehicles, and are entitled to the same rights of safety and access. But many drivers don’t afford cyclists this respect and courtesy; the street can be a scary place for those on two wheels.

In support of bicycle riders everywhere I am a year-round supporter and sometimes participant in the monthly world-wide phenomenon known as Critical Mass.

What is Critical Mass? It is a monthly bike ride, happening in roughly 300 cities worldwide. The first ride was in San Francisco in 1992 with 48 people; San Francisco Critical Mass riders today can number in the thousands. The ride’s original purpose was to to make cyclists visible, and to make the street less threatening by providing safety in numbers for people riding home from work.

In some cities the rides can be confrontational. There have been altercations and arrests in San Francisco and New York City. But New Haven’s ride is billed as a “kinder, gentler Crit Mass” by  Matt Feiner, owner of the Devil’s Gear Bike Shop. As in most of the cities with Critical Mass, the New Haven riders gather at 5:30 pm on the last Friday of the month for an around 6 departure, in our city near the flagpole on the Green. Notice that I say around 6. Like Quaker Meetings, Critical Mass does not have a leader. No one purports to know the route of any given ride. But sometime around 6 pm, cyclists begin to honk their horns and ring their bells, and someone will shout out something like: “You wanna go for a ride?”

There is a carnival-like atmosphere to the gathering. Each city has a different flavor. The bike pictured above was heading to Critical Mass in Chicago several years ago. San Francisco had a number of naked cyclists on Friday. I think it is safe to say that will never happen here. But you might see Matt and his friends on their high wheelers, or people in costumes on Halloween. And there was a memorable ride during which some newlyweds were pedaled around town in a pedicab. Expect the unexpected, that's all I can say.

As far as I know, there have been no arrests at New Haven’s Crit Mass. Although there is no “leader,” there are those riders who keep the group in line, urging everyone to move into one lane, on the right. And others to step up to “cork,” or hold up traffic after the light turns so the group can keep together. Our group is never so big that drivers are inconvenienced for too long, and I have never witnessed any trouble.

Last Friday was a perfect day for a ride. After making the usual big downtown loop, slowing the traffic and interacting with onlookers, we headed off to Fair Haven. Near the playing fields by the wind turbine at Phoenix Press we picked up a couple of new riders with boom boxes and tricked-up bikes who accompanied us on our tour of the riverfront.

I am a planner. Most everything about this ride is so unlike the usual me. Start time is unpredictable; the one time I was late Critical Mass left without me. I’m not a big fan of mystery tours. And Critical Mass challenges my comfort zone.

But it gets me talking to people I might not otherwise meet, and lets me ride places I would not ride alone. Most importantly I feel part of the movement to make motorists bicycle-aware.

Charles Higgins of San Francisco wrote these words in 2000: “The event is at once a rebellion and a celebration. It is a manifestation of deep consternation over transportation, the environment, materialism and free market-driven urban planning. And it brings people together in the open air for a festive rolling adventure. It is at once a loud scream and a soft whisper. Though it raises the blood pressure of some rush-hour commuters, Critical Mass offers a change, if only for a few moments, in the domination of the streets. In place of tons of steel and glass is a rolling community of people who can talk to each other and experience safety in numbers.”

Now that the days are long and the snow is gone, “You wanna go for a ride?” There should be plenty of interesting companions gathering at the flagpole on the New Haven Green, at approximately 5:30 pm on the last Friday of May. Just be ready to roll with the flow and to ring your bell.