In April 2011, Dell Computers made the news by announcing it would use ship computers in packaging made of mushrooms. How do mushrooms become packaging material? How well will it work as packaging? How does making packaging out of mushrooms benefit the environment?
How to Grow Packaging Materials from Mushrooms
The company that makes this novel packaging material, Ecovative (not “eVoCative”, but “eco-vative”), wanted to make a product that did not depend on petro-chemicals, did not take food away from hungry people, and used little energy to manufacture. Ecovative decided that mushrooms would do the trick.
The starting point is an agricultural byproduct such as “buckwheat husks, oat hulls or cotton burrs”. The company presses this into the desired shape for the packaging… perhaps to fit around one of Dell’s laptop computers.
Then they “seed” this shaped organic material with mushroom spores. The spores then begin growing the mycelium, or “root” structure of the mushrooms. In less than a week, the mycelium threads itself throughout the initial material, conforming to the initial shape but making it much stronger.
The final step by Ecovative is to heat treat the packaging material. This kills the mycelium so it will not sprout the “fruiting bodies”, or mushroom caps, from which new spores would be shed.
How Good is Mushroom Based Packaging Material?
Ecovative, of course, claims that its mushroom packaging works very well. The material is at least as strong and shock resistant as the Styrofoam it replaces. It is fairly resistant to water, although, as a biodegradable material, it would not be suitable for an outside wall.
One drawback is that it is denser than the packaging materials it replaces. So it will be a heavier burden for the delivery company.
The Environmental Benefits of Mushroom Based Packaging
From the initial manufacturing point of view, the main benefit to the environment in using mushroom packaging is that it does not use any petro-chemicals. It also does not divert a food product away from feeding humanity.
The manufacturing process is also very energy efficient. Raw materials would be transported, regardless of whether they are petro-chemicals or oat husks. However, very little processing is required to make the mushroom packaging.
The greatest benefit to the environment is that the material is biodegradable, unlike the products it replaces. Eventually other micro-organisms will eat the initial material as well as the mushroom’s mycelium.
The Few Drawbacks to Mushroom Based Packaging for the Environment
To the extent that the source material is “waste”, it is a form of recycling. Most organic materials, however, are already used as animal feed or as a component of fertilizer.
As noted, this material is heavier than the Styrofoam it replaces. Would this make a noticeable difference for the courier company shipping Dell’s laptops by overnight air express?
The Future for Mushroom Based Packaging
Ecovative did not disclose the exact type of mushroom it uses. This company will probably continue experimenting with a variety of fungi to improve the performance of its products, especially looking to reduce the weight.
The company is probably already pursuing other applications for this packaging material. Perhaps it will protect products other than computers in the near future, as well as protecting the environment.
Jonathan Bardelline, Green Biz.com, “Dell to Ship Servers in Mushroom Based Packaging“, published April 5, 2011, referenced April 6, 2011.
Jessica Dailey, Inhabitat, “Dell Will Be First Tech Company to Use Ecovative Mushroom Packaging for Shipping“, published April 5, 2011, referenced April 6, 2011.
Mushroom Packaging.com, “EcoCradle – Mushrooms?“, referenced April 6, 2011.
Heino Lepp & Murray Fagg, Australian National Botanic Gardens, “The Mycelium“, updated Dec. 13, 2005, referenced April 6, 2011.