The Ignite Series is a monthly interview of an artist, creator, or community organizer whose passion has inspired us. In honor of its subject, we create a collectible piece of matchbox art for our subscribers.
Eben Bayer has developed a solution to the global plastic waste crisis. Growing up on a farm and studying engineering, he developed a dual lens of looking at the world that led him to a key insight: nature gives us the answers. By using the forces of biology, his company Ecovative Design is creating technologies to replace petro-chemical based products with biodegradable ones—from packaging to construction and fashion.
In honor of the launch of our packaging partnership with Ecovative, we sat down for a conversation with him, spanning sustainable design, off-grid living, the sweet spot of intersection between art and science and more.
Eben Bayer, Ecovative
Harry Doull (HD): Starting from the beginning, how did you get to that “ah-ha” moment where you decided there was something to explore in using the power of biology to replace ubiquitous materials like plastic?
Eben Bayer (EB): In college, I was studying how jet turbines work and other engineering-heavy topics. I was really into that, and into machines. Then, I would go home to my family farm in Vermont. I'd look at the things around me, like cows, and I started thinking about them as machines.
And then I'd think to myself: "Geeze, this is way more complicated, way more elegant, and way better built." And I have that belief about everything in nature: it is the best technology that's available.
Baby Eben learning to moo
Growing up in the center of a forest on a real, working farm definitely influenced my connection to nature. Later, looking back at it through the lens of an engineer gave me that dual perspective.
With mycelium, the organism that we grow at Ecovative, it was about figuring out how this “natural technology” could be applied in a way that helps humans live on planet Earth better. It’s a question that has been on my mind since my childhood. Then actually making that work turned out to be a lot harder than thinking it to be true.
“Artists and designers bring such a different perspective than an engineer or a biologist brings to that field—and throughout history, art has often helped push science forward.”
HD: Very cool. That idea of combining “man-made” scientific knowledge (engineering and chemistry) with that ecological, almost philosophical perspective—it’s rare to find people with that dual lens. Most people seem to be completely on one side or the other of that spectrum. How important do you think that dual perspective is right now, and do you feel like it's making a comeback?
EB: I'd look at that a couple ways. For one, I think that dual perspective is critical because invention comes from the intersection of disciplines. If you're not able to stand across a couple of disciplines or many disciplines, you can't have innovation or insight. And ideally the farther apart the disciplines are, the better the insights are.
Is it making a comeback? In some sense, you start to see signs of people having broad interests across many categories of things. The advent of artists and designers starting to play with biology is probably the most fruitful space for that kind of innovation. Artists and designers bring such a different perspective than an engineer or a biologist brings to that field—and throughout history, art has often helped push science forward.
I will say... I think the way we teach education today encourages you to focus on a single silo or discipline, and get really, really good at one specific thing. So there's a tension there.
HD: So you've now been working on this mega-project—developing biological alternatives to plastics—for about a decade. What do you see as the breakthrough moments? You must feel like there's been so much progress, both within your project and in the outside world’s awareness.
What do you expect to happen in the next few years, and what do you think needs to happen for technologies like your own to become mainstream?
EB: We had a few breakthrough moments over time. At first we wanted to know if it was even possible to grow products this way. That was the early part of Ecovative and hitting that milestone was really powerful. This idea that because nature self assembles materials, we can make natural materials that are better and cost effective—that we now know it will work: that was a huge breakthrough for us.
Then the challenge became: "Can we do this at commercial scale?". That is where Ecovative is now for several different products.
How Ecovative Works
1: Agricultural waste is sourced from regional farmers.
2: The agricultural waste is cleaned and introduced to mycelium.
3: Growth trays are re-used each week to grow new parts.
4: Loose particles are packed into the growth tray where the mycelium grows through and around the particles binding them together.
5: Parts are grown for 6 days and then removed from the growth tray.
6: Afterwards they go into the dryer and when they come out they are ready to ship to the customer.
Now, the thing I'm really most excited about, and in my opinion the catalyst for the mycelium fabrication revolution is that lots of different people are starting to use this technology for their own products. We have people all across Europe, in the Netherlands, Germany growing and creating their own products. You see other folks in the United States: students, artists, designers, other people forming companies to make mycelium based products.
I think that's really exciting because, at the end of the day, this is a technology. Ecovative is never going to solve all the problems for everyone, so I'm excited to see lots of other people joining us in this field and creating really cool innovations.
My fundamental belief is that every time you use a piece of disposable plastic, you're hurting the Earth. And every time you use a natural material, whether it's mycelium, or wood, or other natural fibers, you're helping the planet. Now there's always a pull and tug about where that natural material comes from, and whether it is grown sustainably. I really believe mycelium is something that can be used to develop great products, which will be inherently really good for the Earth.
“The litmus test I use is to ask myself: "Is this poison?"”
HD: That's an interesting point you bring up about the complexity behind the sustainability of every product. It's a subjective term and it’s difficult to understand all the nuances—even within a product that you yourself are so intimately familiar with. But as a consumer, you can't be really expected to know the minute details of how every product you buy is made.
What would be your advice to consumers who want to be more mindful of what they're doing to the Earth with the products they buy? And what are some things that you, over this decade of work at Ecovative, have learned in your life as a consumer that have changed your behavior?
EB: For the first part of this question, there isn't one right answer. It can get really complicated. The litmus test I use is to ask myself: "Is this poison?".
The issue is that so much of the plastic we produce is ending up in the environment, ending up in our oceans, ending up in fish, ending up in our food, ending up in our blood, that it's acting like a permanent poison. Of course organisms make natural poisons to compete with other organisms, but they can all be remediated in a cycle of life on Earth— if you introduce something that doesn’t fit into that cycle, it's probably going to end up being a permanent poison. That's the first order, simple test I'd ask myself, and I believe that all the technology we need can be found in biology. Nothing in biology is permanent poison to other biology.
Food for plants
HD: Are there any things that you've changed in your behavior over the last decade, from what you've learned through your work with Ecovative—in terms of how you live or think about your personal consumption?
EB: That's a good question. I live off grid, which has always been a dream of mine. I lived first in a one room cabin and now in a house that my wife and I built over three years. We assembled the house using heavy timbers that we notched, raised, and assembled with friends and a few winches. Building a house is very environmentally expensive. So the the goal was to build something that can last 500 years, produce all its own power, water, heat, cooling, and eventually food.
“Design for 500 years; don't design a house that in 30 years might need to be gutted and retrofitted, or knocked down because it was made using the cheapest, fastest materials. ”
The power sources are solar energy and micro-hydro from a stream with small dam on it, so almost all of our energy is made renewably. We are now in the process of finally getting to put in gardens and add animals so we can produce not all of our own food, but a lot of our own food in the summer.
That's been a really wonderful experience. It's something I've loved doing. We also heat the house using wood we collect from the property, so we're pretty carbon neutral in that sense, but in doing it I also realized just how much energy and materials go into making something new. One of the things I’ve learned in the process is that there is a very strong argument to reuse if you can, and that's also true for housing stock. If you're going to build something new, you better build something that lasts and pays back its upfront carbon costs. For me, when I think of housing, that means design for 500 years; don't design a house that in 30 years might need to be gutted and retrofitted, or knocked down because it was made using the cheapest, fastest materials.
Eben's off-the-grid house in progress-
Another thing I'll say is this: as someone who really does want to live these values, it's really hard. I've personally realized that I have to compromise in my life in some ways. I worry about CO2 emissions, but I take a lot of airplane flights. I try to avoid disposable use plastic in my life, but I end up sometimes buying things in disposable use plastic, because that's the only option available. For me, it's about finding that pragmatic balance between living your values, and rather than being a zealot about things like plastic straws in the moment, working to move the world in a direction that is foundationally more sustainable. That's reflected more in my everyday work life where we try and create technologies that are just better. They can substitute for materials people need to have in their everyday life.
Ecovative's packaging is meant to fit in that space, where it replaces a plastic product you use, and whether or not the person on the other end knows they're getting it, it's helping the Earth by removing a piece of styrofoam or plastic that could've ended up in the ocean.
The mycelium material can be made into virtually any shape
HD: That is very well put.
EB: I think that point is really important, because it's so hard to change people's behaviors and people behave based on the system they're in, so we really owe it to ourselves to create products that make it easy for people to be good to the Earth.
HD: On that topic of changing behaviors through systems, here is hard question. Imagine it's post-Trump, and we have a real, policy-making administration again—but policy being only one of the things that we can do as a society.
What do you see is the tipping point where some of the behaviors that you've been trying to implement in your life and the kind of products that your company has been building become more the new norm? What are the kinds of things that you'd like to see happen that get us closer to that vision?
EB: This one's such a tricky wicket, because the concept of natural capital has been around now for a really long time. In theory that's the missing component of capitalism, because capitalism finds the most economical way to do things, except it treats the environment as a free resource. So you can dump stuff in the oceans, you can mine stuff out of the ground, you can put carbon or methane into the air. All those are considered free.
In theory, if we could have a unified world policy around how we treat natural capital, a lot of these things would get solved within that system. We've seen with the climate agreements coordinating worldwide, that's unbelievably hard to do. And while I think it should happen, and we'll probably get closer over time, we'll never quite reach it.
My view on how we're going to get there is actually that we're going to end up relying more on natural technology because it's the best. The ability to engineer biology to do new things is going to give us products that are better than the ones that we make using today’s conventional stuff. By using biology we're going to be returning to nature. Nature produced magnificent forests on this planet for billions of years, and they persisted and they've created more diversity and more beauty. I think we can create products for humans using biology that are very similar. As we do that, the incremental cost we put on the Earth will decrease. I'm more of a techno-optimist if you consider natural technology “technology”, then I am a policy optimist at this point.
HD: What are some other companies out there that you think are doing really good work in this area?
EB: Within the field of biomaterials, where they're near and dear to my heart, the work of bioMASON, which has a way of growing cement using bacteria and sand, which addresses a big problem of cement and CO2 emissions. I'm also a fan of BoltThreads. They've done great work connecting the power of biology to really desirable products, through great design and branding.
HD: We’re almost out of time, so let’s end on a scented note. What's a smell in your life that inspires you, that you would have trouble living without?
EB: For me wood smoke, which reminds me a lot of growing up at home on the farm. Also, there's nothing better for me than starting a wood stove on a cold winter day. You're outside the house, with those wisps of smoke. It just brings back a lot for me. The second is the smell of water on wet rocks, and mud and everything that goes along with being around a stream or a creek. I'm obsessed with water. The third is the smell of a forest on a spring day where it's wet, but not damp, and there's a warm breeze coming through the trees and it just smells like life.
Eben on a hike with his father
HD: I feel like I'm listening to Walden. I imagine that's something you've read.
EB: (laughs) Yes.
HD: And I’m pretty sure that’s also as good a description as you’ll find of Wood Cabin. Thank you so much, Eben. It really gets me going every time I’m reminded that there are people out there working on solutions to our environmental problems. We’re really excited to work with you guys!
For the DIY-minded, Ecovative has generously offered a 50% discount to Keapers on grow-it-yourself material. You can grow your own teddy bear shapes! Head over here, and use code KEAP50 at checkout for 50% off.
More From Eben
Interview by Harry Doull
Artwork by Dan Abary
All photography courtesy of Ecovative (unless noted).
The Keap Ignite Series
We share something new and inspiring every month alongside our subscription candles. The Keap Ignite series is a 12-volume interview series with artists, creators and community leaders that have inspired us. For our subscribers, this takes the form of a collectible mini-zine and matchbox in each monthly package. Learn more about the Keap candle subscription.