It has happened to all of us: you order that gadget, book, or piece of furniture, and upon receiving the delivery or arriving home from the store, you realize that you ended up with a mountain of packaging. Nevermind if your city recycles: whether you are left with a stack of cardboard or pile of Styrofoam, the waste is often appalling.
Companies are improving their packaging methods and finding that doing so can improve their bottom line. Dell has started using compostable bamboo cushions for some its laptops. Cisco has eliminated four million pounds of packaging and saved over US$1 million in shipping costs by just being smarter about how some of its product line is bundled and couriered. Now, a Michigan-based furniture manufacturer is taking biodegradable packing another step further.
Steelcase, which manufactures office furniture, is partnering with Ecovative in creating a plant-based packaging foam that can be grown in as quickly as one week. Founded by two Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, Ecovative claims its fungus based packaging material can match polystyrene’s costs penny for penny. The process is relatively simple: enzymes in the mushrooms bind with agricultural byproducts in a darkroom, and within 5 to 10 days is ready to be molded and used for packaging and cushioning.
For Steelcase, its packaging is a blend of seed husks, cotton burrs, and the mushroom root material that Ecovative grows. Steelcase’s long term goal is to produce the compostable packaging regionally, capitalizing on what is available in the local area. In the South, for example cottonseed hulls are readily available, and are expensive for farmers to haul away. Not only farmers, but companies like Steelcase can benefit. Steelcase hopes to reduce its shipping costs, while reducing its environmental impact: eco-packaging like that of Ecovative’s require 10 times less energy and emits eight times less carbon dioxide than the process required to create the equivalent amount of Styrofoam.
So what can the customer do with that packaging after receiving that new office chair? It can be composted in a garden, or in a worst case scenario, it would at least eventually break down in the landfill. The word on the street is that the packaging is even edible, though at press time no taste test has been conducted. In the meantime, Steelcase will start shipping some of its wares using the Evocative product this summer, and if successful, will expand its use for its other furniture lines.