Styrofoam attacked by killer mushrooms!

An article about mushrooms and plastics in the New Yorker magazine of May 20,2013, pp. 50-62 is entitled “Form and Fungus.” It shows signs of having been written as a fairly straight-ahead piece of feature reportage by “local correspondent” Ian Frazier. However, the article also gives the appearance of having been pumped up by an editor to make some attention-getting, albeit absurd claims, as echoed in my headline spoof. I ask myself, “Is it April 1? Have I been had by an April Fool’s stunt?” Just a thought, but April 1 was seven weeks ago as of this writing.

The New Yorker article’s title is a clever play on the term “Form and Function.”

A subtitle queries, “Can mushrooms help us get rid of Styrofoam?”  To the writer’s credit, the trade-name issues re “Styrofoam” are addressed rather than just ignored.

The article focuses on a company called “Ecovative Design LLC,” founded by Gavin McIntyre and Eben Bayer, who operate out of a building in Green Island, NY.

Over the course of an estimated 7000+ word article, (the equivalent of about 30 pages of a typed manuscript) the author makes a reasonable case that an alternative material may one day fairly soon displace Styrofoam.  I don’t propose to dissect the article sentence by sentence. It’s a good article. I encourage you to read it.

However, the editor uses a caption to lapse into a claim–somewhere between the dubious and the hallucinogenic–to wit:

“The makers of a mycelium-based [i.e. mushroom-based] packaging materialwant to make plastics obsolete.”

It’s quite a leap from replacing Styrofoam, or any plastics-based packaging material, to wanting to “make plastics obsolete.”  At a literal level, maybe it is true. Maybe the mushroom guys WANT to make plastics obsolete. Lots of people want lots of things. But the actual scientific and technical work documented in the article is focused on relatively narrow and possibly achievable goals, not on grandiose notions of eliminating all plastics, at least not in the foreseeable future.

The inventors and the writer have an ambitious view of the world. The New Yorker editor, on the other hand, has perhaps ingested too many mushrooms. The text of the article does say at one point that the company’s “eventual goal is to displace plastics all over the world.” Well, maybe, but virtually the entire article is about packaging applications. Ecovative might succeed in displacing Styrofoam, a trade-named version of expanded polystyrene (EPS).

The “urge to replace” has been a strong one in the plastics industry, with the article’s author pointing out, rightly I think, that “Many plastics were invented to imitate natural substances, like rubber, wood, bone, silk, hemp, or ivory.”

But do the mushroom people propose to replace, within a generation, the commodity plastics such as PE and PP, and then move on to displace the engineering resins ABS, PA (nylons), PEEK, and others? I’m not holding my breath.

I am a strong advocate of freedom of expression and the freedom-of-speech rights spelled out in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. But I am also aware of the notion that it is better to be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.

The New Yorker, in this article, is teetering on the edge, it seems to me. Grandiose delusions are a diagnosable characteristic, and the idea, stated or implied, that even a successful substitute for Styrofoam might eliminate all plastics, is absurd at best and deranged at worst.—Merle R. Snyder



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