From mushrooms to plant plastics, it’s time to start thinking outside of the (cardboard) box

by Sep 11, 2013

Truly innovative packaging could be a part of your sustainability story.

When I started working in an office last year, I suddenly developed a taste for mushrooms. It was purely psychological – I was lamenting indoor life and remembered that mushrooms contain Vitamin D. I can’t think about them too much when I eat them, though … all those mycelia stringing through the earth, popping up over night …

But there’s another function for those strange threads, one that benefits the health of the planet and the products being shipped around it.

Growing sustainable packaging, literally

Mushroom mycelia and agricultural waste are the ingredients in Ecovative’s high-performance, biodegradable and compostable alternative to foam packaging. The company grows and shapes the Mushroom® Packaging to meet each of its customers’ needs. The product is Cradle to Cradle CertifiedCM Gold, so the entire process, from growth to finish, is designed to be environmentally beneficial. It’s also a USDA Certified Biobased Product.

Two Rs are the more common approach

As far as packaging goes, what I see most often are labels boasting recycled or reduced content. That’s good, and often involves a surprising amount of innovation and design changes, even if a package doesn’t look very different to the undiscerning consumer.

Coca-Cola’s PlantBottle™ exemplifies scientific innovation without major design changes. It’s still PET plastic, but it’s made with renewable sugar cane. Like any other PET plastic, it’s recyclable. Coke has been working on sustainable packaging since the very early year of 1969.

Rad isn’t a fad

So radically new designs and materials aren’t common on shelves or in the boxes of your online purchases.

But that’s exactly what Ecovative wants to change, according to Marketing Manager Sam Harrington, who has written, “We’re not looking for quick fixes or incremental improvements; we’re inventing radical replacements for environmentally harmful plastics. While some options pretend to solve the plastic problem with 10% reductions in materials or by swapping petrochemicals for lower performing, albeit natural, materials that affect our food supply, Ecovative takes a totally different approach.”

Compostability – often achieved via a combination of cardboard and renewable materials – seems to be a key quality for more imaginative new packaging. The 360º Bottle, a recycled and recyclable/compostable cardboard beverage bottle made from bamboo or palm leaves, has a sleek, award-winning design, but as far as I can tell, hasn’t made it to shelves. Ecologic Brands and GreenBottle have, though.

Seventh Generation uses Ecologic’s plastic-lined cardboard bottle for its Natural 4x Laundry Detergent. Straus Family Farms, a large organic dairy based in California, uses Ecologic’s milk bottle. And Safeway will soon let Ecologic transform its discarded boxes into similar packaging for store-brand products.

There have even been ideas for edible food packaging, like dissolving hot chocolate pouches.

Starch-based packing peanuts have become well known since the early 1990s, for corporate and personal use. For more aesthetically pleasing filler, Sylvacurl of Vermont’s All Natural Wood Curls, made of fast-growing aspen, can be composted or reused for animal bedding (this I wouldn’t call radically new, but, in an age of Styrofoam, it’s certainly different).

Mushrooms are the most far-out material I’ve encountered. And they’re doing well. Ecovative has hardly had to market their products; according to Melissa Jacobsen, my media contact there, Ecovative has been “fortunate enough to have companies reach out to us after hearing about our product through media outlets. These media outlets have almost all approached us directly, offering free promotion for us. Since we are the only company out there doing what we’re doing, we are fortunate to receive a ton of support and interest.”

Fortune 500 companies are using Mushroom Packaging, although not necessarily across operations. Steelcase, Dell, PUMA, and Crate and Barrel have all used it, often for particular products, like PUMA’s limited edition Laird stand-up paddleboard.

While some big names are using packaging products like these, some of the packaging companies’ sites, like GreenBottle and Ecologic, seem to target smaller or already green businesses, like organic farms or Seventh Generation, more than big ubiquitous brands.

But other large companies are working on their packaging too, like Sprint. Sprint has achieved some impressive packaging improvements just since 2008: They’ve reduced package volume by 60 percent and weight by 50 percent, and switched from plastic laminates to 100 percent recyclable, unbleached kraft paper with low-VOC, vegetable-based inks. The company has even formed a packaging committee to focus on social, ethical and environmental accountability related to packaging.

Mind the ruts

The general consumer and the supply chain are frequently targeted with recycled/recyclable/reduced content messages rather than with new things.  Is that just because of  economics – after all, changing  packaging design can be expensive and risky – or is it just a result of inertia? Maybe companies are just not engaged enough to really rethink the idea of packaging?

To loosely paraphrase Bill McDonough, is our goal in making packaging more sustainable to create less waste, or to create no waste?

Steelcase, which tested one of Ecovative’s early packaging products, the Ecocradle, also uses blankets and wooden pallets to ship many of its furniture products. Much more furniture fits in a vehicle; it’s simply unwrapped or unstacked at its destination, ready to go; and the blankets and pallets can be used over and over.

Ecovative’s Mushroom products are compostable and biodegradable, even in the anaerobic atmosphere of a landfill.

What if more companies took the risk to dramatically change their packaging materials? And not just for the green niche or limited-edition products of major manufacturers, like PUMA, or the specialty brands like Seventh Generation.

The middle ground is a perfect place for mushrooms.

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About the Author

Meghan McDonald

Meghan concepts and writes copy for clients and also reviews creative deliverables for clarity, grammar and brand alignment. She brings an interdisciplinary background in environmental studies and journalism to our team. If you want to know the name of a tree or flower, she’s the one to ask.

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