HSU Grad Playing Key Role in Battle Against Styrofoam

Can a startup headed by two twenty-somethings rid the Earth of styrofoam? It just may be happening.

Sue Van Hook, who earned Bachelor’s degrees in Botany and French and a Master’s degree in Biology from HSU,  has retired from teaching at prestigious Skidmore College and is now the Chief Mycologist at Ecovative Design, LLC. which employs about sixty people in Green Island, New York. Ian Frazier, in the May 20 edition of The New Yorker,  recounts in his article the six-year history of the company, which has attracted international attention by developing  an all-natural substitute for plastic made from tissue found in mushrooms.  It is suitable for containers and packaging now made from Styrofoam. “Ecovative’s eventual goal is to displace plastics all over the world.”

Ecovative’s founders, Gavin McIntyre and Eben Bayer, are graduates of Rensselaer Tech’s Inventors’ Studio and its Incubator program.  They were already talking about starting a company and had won a $20,000 prize for environmental entrepreneurship from Oxford when Van Hook read about them in a local paper and called them. Skidmore became a backer of the project along with Rensselaer and Van Hook’s students became part of the effort to find a suitable growing medium and technique to produce an “artificial plastic”.

The hazards of real plastic are pretty evident by this time. Landfills, beaches and highways   are littered with Styrofoam which once was used primarily for building insulation but now, unhappily, is everywhere. Much of the trash gyre in the Pacific Ocean is styrofoam, also called “foamed polystyrene”.  As Frazier notes, “Foamed polystyrene breaks down extremely slowly, in timespans no one is sure of, and a major chemical it breaks down to is styrene, listed as a carcinogen in the 2011 toxicology report issued by the National Institutes of Health.”  The toll on wildlife has been well-established.  Mayor Bloomberg has proposed a ban on the commercial use of Styrofoam containers in NYC.

The materials produced by Ecovative will biodegrade in about a month, with no carcinogens. I highly recommend the article, along with the rest of the May 20 “Innovators issue”, and I’m sorry I can’t reprint the whole thing for you, but it’s copyrighted. You can buy it online, visit the library or just buy a subscription.  I’ve been reading The New Yorker since I was a kid and it just keeps getting better.

So why don’t we have a county-wide ban on  Styrofoam?  Could your business find a way to succeed without foamed polystyrene? And wouldn’t Sue Van Hook have been a better choice as a graduation speaker than a phonied-up impersonator of Alexander von Humboldt, who never set foot in California?? What do you think?

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