Is there a way out from under the mountains of packaging that sit in landfills for centuries? A new generation of designers and engineers is breaking out of the plastic clamshell. They’re not only using less material—they’re growing biodegradable containers out of mushrooms, bacteria, and even sewage.
Molded Mushroom Packing
Ecovative Design LLC has found a way to grow custom packing products. The company has developed EcoCradle, a styrofoam alternative made from crop waste and mycelium. It takes 5–7 days in the dark for the mycelium to envelop agricultural byproducts such as oat hulls and cotton burrs. The material is then heated to stop the growth and prevent more spores from forming. Ecovative Design sells a variety of packing materials, such as the Wine Shipper (above). Dell and Steelcase are already starting to use EcoCradle to ship computer equipment and furniture, respectively.
Photo ©Ecovative Design
A Woodchip Chainsaw Case
Dutch designer Maurice Meewisse created the zaagkoffer, or saw casing, a suitcase for his chainsaw, by using the woodchips made by the same saw. He dried the chips and mixed them with a homemade, biodegradable adhesive to make a lightweight, waterproof particleboard. His design has been nominated for the Dutch DOEN Materiaalprijs for innovative, functional, and sustainable materials.
Photo ©Maurice Meewisse
As an antidote to cardboard boxes that are inevitably too large or too small for their cargo, designer Patrick Sung devised a foldable box that’s always just the right size. His Universal Packaging System uses perforated cardboard that can pack objects of nearly any shape, reducing the need to fill up lots of empty space with other materials such as styrofoam.
Photo ©Patrick Sung
Packaging Becomes the Product
A major U.K. floor-care brand, Vax, has rolled out a prototype vacuum cleaner called the ev that is made out of its own box. The corrugated cardboard panels lock into place around the motor housing without glue and are easily replaced if damaged. It can even be decorated to taste by its owners.
Designer David Gardener’s Package Lamp is its own pulped and molded paper shipping container. In its packaging phase, the middle portion of the lamp houses the electrical components and light bulb. No material is wasted in creating the final product.
Photos ©David Gardener
The Hangerpak, developed by graphic craftsman Steve Haslip, morphs from an ordinary box into a coat hanger. The only waste is the green tear-away tab.
Photos ©Steve Haslip
Square Block in a Round Hole
Small changes at scale can add up. In that spirit, designer Andrew Kim devised a plan for a Coke bottle with a new shape. It would be 100 percent plant-based, stackable, and collapsible. Kim calculates that with the slimmer, blockier footprint, 3,949 more bottles can be shipped in a standard shipping container, shrinking the carbon footprint of every drink.
Images ©Andrew Kim
Self-Cleaning Plastic Inspired By Blue Cheese
A team of researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich have mimicked the food-preserving properties of soft cheese rinds to create a self-cleaning plastic. Lukas Gerber and colleagues injected slightly porous sheets of plastics with Penicillium roqueforti, the fungus that puts the “blue” into blue cheese. Two weeks after a sugar solution was dropped onto the plastic, the fungus had completely eaten the spill. The fungus went dormant with no food supply but could be revived with more nourishment. The researchers believe that their “living” material may be used for self-disinfecting food packaging and kitchen counters. The technology might even be used to wrap whole buildings with porous sheets containing algae (instead of fungus) that would convert carbon dioxide to oxygen.
Gerber, L.C. et al. 2012. Incorporating microorganisms into polymer layers provides bioinspired functional living materials. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences doi:10.1073/pnas.1115381109.
Biodegradable Plastic from Sewage
It takes a certain microbial magic to turn sludge into a valuable packaging material, but Sacramento-based start-up Micromidas has the right touch. The company feeds sewage to a variety of bacteria (the recipe depends on the wastewater source), setting off a fermentation process that produces resin (above). The resin can then be processed into a versatile plastic that’s similar to petroleum-based materials such as polypropylene, polyethylene, and polystyrene. But this plastic biodegrades in 6–12 months.