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Industry Insight

There's a Fungus Among Us: Dell's New Packaging Options

Back in the early 1990s,

By Richard Romano
Published: August 6, 2012

Back in the early 1990s, when your blogger was working as a research assistant to a popular math and science question-and-answer columnist, one reader wrote in and helpfully asked, “Why can’t we dump Styrofoam packaging peanuts into the San Andreas Fault to help prevent earthquakes?” (My response would have been, “you’d probably need a heck of a lot of them, and then the incessant, deafening Styrofoam squeaking noise would probably be worse than the quakes,” and likely one of the reasons that I am not a popular magazine columnist.) I was reminded of this question recently as there is some indication that Styrofoam packing peanuts—the bane of anyone who receives merchandise packed with them—may be on the way out, and dumping them into faultlines may end up being the best use for them after all. To wit, this article over at GreenBiz about Dell Computer’s experiments with more sustainable types of packaging materials, namely, compostable bamboo and—get this—mushrooms. Mushrooms? Are you tripping? Begun last year, the company had begun shipping its servers packed in a cushioning material derived from mushrooms. Not that they go foraging in the woods and chuck whatever they find into the boxes prior to shipping. It’s actually a specially developed packaging material. Called EcoCradle and developed by Green Island, NY’s Ecovative Design, the material begins as agricultural waste, detritus that can’t be used for food, feed, or seed. This waste is cleaned and processed, and then injected with mycelium, proto-mushroom fibers that eat the waste and grow into the fruiting bodies with which we are familiar. The waste and mycelium mixture is placed in molds, so as the ’shrooms grow, they form in the desired shape. The process requires no chemical assistance, no water, or even any light. When the material is the desired size and shape, a heat treatment stops the growth process, lest someone open a Dell server box and unleash The Blob. The process also removes any allergen issues, and prevents the distribution of further spores. The process is reported to use one-fortieth the energy required to make Styrofoam.
"The final product looks and acts like Styrofoam -- only this is organic, biodegradable and can be used as compost or mulch, which makes for easier and more environmental-friendly disposal," Dell's sustainability team wrote in its latest report.
Dell is also using bamboo-based packaging in its netbooks packages. We hasten to point out:
The bamboo comes from a forest in China that holds Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification, and Dell is working with its bamboo supplier, Unisource Global Solutions, to receive FSC certification for the bamboo's entire chain of custody, from forest to manufacturing.
The bamboo use has been limited to interior cushioning, largely, the company says, due to (so-far) insufficient bamboo supply.
Bamboo also provides a number of environmental benefits, since it grows fast, does not need much water, does not need pesticides and pulls more carbon dioxide out of the air than hardwood trees while putting out more oxygen.
Let’s hope there isn’t this deplorable downside: starving pandas.

Please offer your feedback to Richard. He can be reached at richard@whattheythink.com.



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