Packaging has been a source of frustration and the object of jokes ever since the days when you practically needed a Swiss Army knife and a jackhammer to open a new CD case. (Thank goodness those days are over!) Today, packaging is once again getting a lot of attention, and not just for user-friendliness. This time, the focus is on sustainability.
What are the Sustainability Issues Related to Packaging?
The industry’s key challenge is to reduce the amount of polystyrene used in packaging supplies. Among other uses, polystyrene is the basis for Styrofoam, which is used for everything from molded packaging supplies to those peanuts that end up all over the floor. While the production methods used today are more environmentally friendly than earlier processes, which used chlorofluorocarbons, polystyrene can take thousands of years to break down, and anything that isn’t recycled ends up in landfills. With sustainable supply chains becoming a business imperative, the race is on for eco-friendly packaging supplies that fit the bill.
What are the Potential Solutions?
Retailer IKEA recently announced that they’re making the switch to biodegradable, mushroom-based packaging. And, no, that doesn’t mean the next package of Lego MiniFigs your child orders will arrive tucked inside a mushroom cap. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but the possibilities have sustainable supply chain experts pretty excited.
Mushroom packaging explained in a nutshell:
- The process starts by adding mycelium (basically, ground-up mushroom roots) to agricultural waste like corn hulls and husks. When the mycelium starts growing, it develops into a mass of fibers that take the shape of the mold it’s in, creating packaging that’s not only environmentally friendly but also custom-made.
- Once the desired shape has been achieved, the packaging is heated to stop growth and then dried.
- The process uses only a fraction – 2% -- of the energy needed to make polystyrene packaging supplies like Styrofoam.
- The packaging itself is biodegradable and can, therefore, be discarded without harming the environment.
What Obstacles Stand in the Way?
Despite the promises of mushroom packaging, there are still a few obstacles to widespread acceptance. One common problem is the logistics of transportation. While the material is very durable in a controlled environment, it breaks down quickly outside, so items shipped in mushroom-based packaging would need careful handling. In addition, before it can be used in food packaging, it needs to go through the FDA approval process, which could take months or even years to pass. An additional consideration is the impact on the mushroom industry itself and how quickly it could scale to meet the increased demand, which has some environmentalists concerned.
So…is Mushroom Packaging a Fad or the Future?
This remains to be seen. What’s certain is that the current focus on the sustainable supply chain and eco friendly packaging supplies is here to stay. It’s estimated that between 1/4 and 1/3 of all domestic waste comes from packaging. In addition, plastics – of which packaging is a large part – account for 90% of all marine debris. So the real question is which sustainable packaging materials will be accepted by consumers, cost-effective to produce and use, and feasible to implement.
But mushroom packaging isn’t the end all be all! In addition to mushrooms, for example, Dell is experimenting with packaging made from bamboo. Research is also underway on packaging made from bamboo pulp and palm fiber. What is abundantly clear is that consumers want sustainable packaging, and the businesses that deliver first and best will have a competitive advantage.