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Dell’s Bamboo Cushions: A Compostable and Locally Sourced Sustainable Packaging Option

Kathryn Siranosian | Tuesday May 25th, 2010 | 2 Comments

Dell’s corporate initiative to create packaging that’s environmentally responsible end-to-end cleared another hurdle a few weeks ago when the company’s innovative bamboo cushions received (ASTM) D-6400 certification from the American Society for Testing and Materials.

This certification means that:

  • Dell’s new packaging option will compost and biodegrade at a rate comparable to known compostable materials when added to a hot, active compost pile.
  • The compost resulting from the packaging’s degradation process is not phototoxic. (Or, in other words, the compost is of good quality and can sustain plant growth.)

Dell began using bamboo cushions to package its Mini 10 and Mini 10v netbooks in November 2009. Since then, the company has expanded its use of bamboo packaging to a number of Dell Inspiron laptops, as well. Rather than retrofit existing platforms, Dell decided to phase in this sustainable packaging option on new products, explained Oliver Campbell, Dell’s senior manager of packaging worldwide.

“The whole process of re-thinking our packaging began back in January 2009,” he said. “We wanted to break the paradigm for polyethylene and polystyrene packaging, and we knew we didn’t want something paper-based. So, we took a look at bamboo.”

But, why bamboo?

According to Campbell , there are several compelling reasons Dell chose bamboo for this packaging initiative:

  • It grows fast. Bamboo, a member of the grass family, is among the fastest growing woody plants in the world. It can grow up to 24 inches per day and reaches full harvesting maturity in three to seven years, significantly faster than hardwoods.
  • It’s strong. Remarkably, bamboo’s tensile strength is similar to that of steel, making it a reliable material for protecting technology equipment in transit. (Note: “Strength” is where recycled paper content often falls short. Recycled wood fibers are not as long–and therefore not as strong–as wood pulp. Dell does use a minimum of 25 percent recycled content in its exterior box packaging, but the company has found that increasing recycled content more than this does not provide adequate product protection. By contrast, bamboo is a both strong and sustainable.)
  • It’s easy on the environment. Bamboo helps promote healthy soil. The plant’s deep root systems protect against land erosion, and when harvested correctly, it doesn’t require replanting after harvest.
  • It’s a local sourcing option. Dell manufactures computers in China. Now, the bamboo cushions for several production lines of these computers are locally sourced and manufactured in China, as well.
  • It’s sustainable. Dell works with bamboo packaging supplier Unisource Global Solutions (UGS) to ensure all processes associated with the bamboo’s production meet the highest standards. The company sources its raw bamboo from a forest that follows Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) principles and criteria and worked with UGS to secure FSC-certification for the bamboo’s full chain of custody, from the forest to the manufacturing facilities.

Campbell also pointed out Dell uses bamboo from a forest in China’s Jiangxi Province–far away from pandas’ known habitats.

“And this isn’t bamboo rayon,” he added, referring to chemically manufactured bamboo, a product that is not environmentally-responsible.

Still, no solution is 100 percent “perfect,” and bamboo packaging did present sustainability challenges.

Primarily, those challenges came from the back-end of the packaging life cycle. For instance, Dell needed to determine how consumers could responsibly dispose of the used bamboo cushions, Campbell explained.

Right now, recycling is not a particularly convenient method for disposal because unfortunately, bamboo is not yet widely accepted in municipal recycling programs. And the company didn’t have data about the compostability of the bamboo cushions … until earlier this month.

“The ASTM certification tells us that the packaging can be composted responsibly,” Campbell said. So, now, one significant challenge from the back-end of the packaging life cycle has been resolved.

Meanwhile, Dell, Georgia Pacific, UGS and Environmental Packaging International are also in the process of certifying the bamboo packaging for recycling. Then, these organizations will help educate municipalities–and the industry as a whole–about the recyclability of bamboo, Campbell explained.

But, why stop with bamboo? Aren’t there other plant-based options that could be used for packaging?

“Absolutely,” Campbell said, explaining that ultimately, Dell would like to locally source its packaging material from wherever its computers manufacturing facilities are located. Several projects are in development now, and he hinted that sugarcane and rice hull fibers appear to be promising candidates for future packaging initiatives.

“Different regions have different materials available. We’re exploring the frontier of sustainable packaging here, and we’re actively working to integrate more innovative, agricultural materials into our packaging portfolio,” Campbell concluded. “Developing packaging that is lightweight, strong enough to protect our products in transit, avoids the need to cut down hardwood trees and can return to the ground to sustain new plant growth–those are the kinds of long-term, sustainable solutions we want to provide for our customers.”


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