Sustainable Business Spotlight: Ecovative Design

Company: Ecovative Design | Product: EcoCradle™ packaging

The sustainability of packaging is one of the oldest issues in environmental circles. Cities like Berkeley, California banned the use of polystyrene foam as a post-consumer food container back in January of 1990 because of the many adverse environmental impacts they imposed.

EcoCradle packaging piece.

Back then, few options existed to replace the fossil fuel based packaging products. They contained styrene and benzene, two known carcinogens, yet their use was ubiquitous in the industry – until now.

Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre founded Ecovative Design in 2007 after seeing how mushrooms grew on wood chips, and observing how the fungal mycelium strongly bonded the wood chips together. This observation sparked an idea to emulate nature’s elegant manufacturing process with their own.

Ecovative Design's wine packaging.

Three years later, they launched EcoCradle™, a truly sustainable packaging material.

The key to EcoCradle’s sustainability lay in it’s sourcing of agricultural byproducts that come from renewable sources.

By not funneling raw materials into their design process, the products themselves reduce the impact on the environment.

Unlike EcoCradle’s direct competitors that manufacture polystyrene foam peanuts (PFP), theirs is compostable and biodegradable.

Ecovative Design customers can rely upon EcoCradle’s easy to use and price-competitive packaging products, knowing they’re an excellent replacement for custom molded polystyrene foams.

The energy used to create EcoCradle packaging is a fraction of it’s competitors due to Ecovative Design’s manufacturing processes based upon biomimicry. They use mushrooms to create the resin used to bond particles together (bioutilization).  This process is biomimetic in that it mimics nature’s cyclic material flows.

EcoCradle packaging can be substituted for polystyrene foam.

Rather than just decreasing the environmental impact of conventional polystyrene foams, this invention creates a whole new paradigm where composite materials are literally grown, harnessing the incredible efficiency of nature.” (From Ecovative Design’s website)


Can Bottled Water Be Sustainable?

If a bottled water could be sustainable, what would it look like? How would it’s production, distribution and disposal be any different from the bottled water industry’s vulgar plundering practices of today?

To investigate these questions one must look at the four areas water companies would need to change in order for their products to be considered sustainable. Let’s start with the health impacts of bottled water.

Claims of Purity

Eco Island bottles claim to generate 45% less energy, 49% less fossil fuels and emits 75% less greenhouse gases than other brands.

The misconception, evidenced by enormously expensive media advertising budgets, is that today’s bottled water is natural and healthy to drink. Nothing could be further from the truth. See, Tapped: The Movie.

According to a four-year scientific study by the Natural Resources Defense Council, over a third of the tested brands contain contaminants such as arsenic and carcinogenic compounds. This study of 103 different brands encompassing over 1,000 bottles showed that one-third of the water in these bottles exceeded state or industry safety standards.

Let’s take a closer look at Bisphenol-A (BPA), the actual stuff that is used to make all those hard, clear plastic bottles. This molecule acts at very low doses as an estrogen. But, when the human body gets to very high dosages, BPA blocks the male sex hormone, testosterone.

BPA is everywhere. Americans are likely to be exposed to BPA at higher levels than previously thought. Studies show the chemical is found in more than 90 percent of people in the United States. The chemical compound mimics hormones important to human development, according to new research. Hormones are essential during development and can determine, among other things, a child’s gender. BPA, since it mimics estrogen, is an “endocrine disruptor.”

So, if BPA is all around us than how much is too much?

The EPA shows that taking up to 50 micrograms of BPA per kilogram of body weight each day is acceptable. However, a new study, published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, suggests that we are exposed to at least eight times that amount every day.

If bottled water were to be sustainable, it certainly could not cause harm to those who drink, produce, distribute or manufacture it.

Water “Footprinting”

Your water footprint calculator by

The idea of water footprinting came from the concept of carbon footprinting. Water Footprinting is used as an impact indicator based on the total volume of direct and indirect freshwater used in producing a good or service. The difference is, that unlike carbon in the atmosphere, fresh water resources are localized, not global.

The water footprint has become a growing issue worldwide.  Numerous organizations and initiatives addressing it include the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the Water Footprint Network, and the Life Cycle Initiative jointly led by the United Nations Environment Programme and the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry.

With all the interest in water footprinting, the Beverage Industry has taken action. In 2010, they formed the Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable (BIER), a working group to evaluate and address the increasing global efforts to develop water footprinting methodologies, particularly as they apply to the beverage sector.

Of course, when 518 liters of freshwater are required to produce just one liter of Minute Maid orange juice, and 35 liters are needed to produce a half liter of Coca-Cola, the beverage industry has become a target of environmental repudiation.

The folks over at Treehugger did a sustainability calculation on the water impact to produce a bottle of Fiji mineral water. Sustainability Engineer and MBA Pablo Päster’s research shows that the water needed to make the bottle is more than it actually holds.

To mitigate the unsustainable water usage that has become standard practice, the water industry must employ state-of-the-art water reduction strategies, if they are to produce bottled water sustainably.

Achieving Transportation Efficiencies Through Co-Location

A large portion of the energy used in the production of water bottles is used in transportation. Because of the industry’s practice of using large, centralized distribution centers, enormous quantities of fossil fuels are used to transport bottled water to the end consumer.

One solution to this distribution model is to create a system of smaller, localized, co-location facilities. These facilities represent a shift in thinking for business as usual decision makers. As the costs of transportation increase, driven in large part by the rising cost of oil, pressure on the transportation side of the equation will force a change in the bottled water industry.

The savings in transportation costs, from establishing smaller, community-based facilities don’t tell the whole story. The opportunities for community involvement, such as donating their product to local charities, could also improve the consumer’s perception of the company and the product. Public visibility, combined with community involvement, is often rewarded with ‘sticky’ customers – ones that remain loyal to a brand.

Regardless of the measures taken to reduce the transportation costs for bottled water, there will always be a less expensive distribution method – plain old filtered tap water.

Recycling and Light-Weighting Bottles

Upcycled plastic water bottles become incredible art bowls.

For years the difficulty of recycling used water bottles has been a central argument against the use of bottled water. The volume-to-weight ratio is very high, making the cost of transportation more than the recyclable material is worth.

The inherent inefficiencies and environmental impacts of producing single-use containers, made entirely from a non-renewable resource plagues the bottled water industry. Even when more efficient bottle design accounts for reductions in the material used per container, the ultimate solution is still out of reach.

Keeping this in mind, is sustainable bottled water even possible? We sure hope it is.

Sales of bottled water have tripled in the past 10 years, with Americans drinking $4 billion worth a year. An astounding third of the public consumes it on a regularly basis. And this trend shows no signs of letting up.

The demand from consumers for portable water containers is driving this market ever higher. Bottled water represents the brightest sector of the beverage industry’s selection of products, hands down. Year-over-year, the bottled water sector continues to grow at a whopping 12% a year, even during our current recession.

The conclusion is unavoidable and somewhat counter intuitive. In order to achieve lower environmental impacts related to bottled water, an innovative and sustainable approach is needed. The opportunity for entrepreneurs to enter this field is enormous. Possible solutions could include bottling from local water sources, in reusable and non-toxic containers, and then transported to consumers in their own watershed.

However the market for bottled water evolves, the consumer demand is strong and so is the need for a brand new, sustainable solution.

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