Dell has been serious about sustainable packaging for several years, and now the company is taking it up to a new level. After introducing bamboo packaging for some of its smaller devices in 2008, Dell has just announced that it will start shipping other products in packaging material made from a fungus material, combined with commercial agricultural waste. Since the packaging is fully biodegradable, it brings up an intriguing point about the advantages of using packaging to provide consumers with an added value, rather than saddling them with a liability.
The idea of value-added packaging is not new. In the food industry, it is commonplace for packaging to be saved and re-used. The venerable Altoids tin is just one small example of an infinitely reusable package, and some old candy tins and boxes are collectible. Even plain cardboard packaging can have some use-value, as any parent can attest regarding refrigerator boxes. In a new twist, Nabisco has integrated seed-embedded cardboard into some of its Triscuit packages, as part of a home farming initiative (and yes, I bought the first box I saw). By the same token, compostable packaging has value for pretty much any consumer with a garden. Mushroom Packaging
The new mushroom packaging is made by a company called Ecovative Design. The concept is pretty straightforward. You take mycelium, a thready fungal network, and you grow it on agricultural waste such as buckwheat husks and cotton burrs. If you contain the growth in a mold, you can engineer it into various forms. Once out of the mold, the forms retain their shape because the mycelium binds the other materials together. Exposure to heat finishes the process. Compared to synthetic foam packaging, the whole procedure involves very little energy. That's not only because very little actual manufacturing takes place, but because it also takes place in the dark - we're talking about mushrooms, remember.
No, Seriously, Mushroom Packaging
As Dell points out on its blog, there are some big players behind the development of fungus-based packaging. Even compared to other bioplastics and plant-based packaging products, the mycelium process stands out, because there are some serious energy efficiencies involved in growing an item rather than manufacturing it. Dell cites the National Science Foundation, EPA, and USDA as research sponsors. It's also possible that the Department of Defense will get involved, if it hasn't done so already, as it adopts more biodegradable packaging for the military.
Dell and Packaging
Dell has set itself an ambitious goal of cutting about 20 million pounds of packaging from its shipments by the end of 2012. Assuming that little or none of that reduction comes from shipping fewer and smaller items (and fewer items that require more cushioning), it's going to come from using smaller boxes with less cushioning. The company is also focusing on packaging that more communities can recycle at curbside - which basically eliminates most petroleum-based foam packaging. While the new "mushroom" packaging may not fit into a curbside category anywhere but San Francisco (which has curbside food waste recycling), it certainly gives consumers with gardens a bit of extra bang for their bucks.
Image: Mushroom courtesy Coconino National Forest on flickr.com.