So far in our Packaging the Future series we’ve explored how nature solves the packaging problems of strength, buoyancy and moisture-retention (coconut shells), tough-but-flexible protection (wombat butts) and light tensile strength (ant exoskeletons). Now it’s time to look at the softer side of packaging; after all, not all containers need to be tough, and not all packing needs require rigidity. All of the fluffy paddings below are created from solar energy, water, soil minerals and air, unlike their packing counterparts: styrofoam peanuts, foam, polyester fillings, and other plastic-derived materials that use fossil fuels as their basis. They break down easily when they are no longer needed, and several have additional uses outside of softness – read on for some amazing examples of fluffy natural packaging!
Milkweed is a ubiquitous plant found at the edges of roadways, in recently abandoned fields, and other areas where secondary succession is taking place (milkweed is a colonizer). Its fluffy, white fibers could make great padding — the filaments (the individual white hairs inside the seed pods) are hollow, making them very lightweight (the better to carry their seed cargo distances to spread the plant), and coated with wax, which makes them water-resistant. In addition to their softness and ability to float miles on the wind, milkweed fibers have actually been shown to be better insulators than down in government military tests, which is why they are used for insulation could be ideal for packaging that requires some temperature regulation.
Outside of commercial applications, milkweed is the sole food source of the monarch butterfly, and its sap can be used as a natural remedy for poison ivy (though some people do experience contact dermatitis from the sap). Milkweed sap is also a common folk remedy to encourage blood clotting and wart removal, and Native Americans used it as a sweetener, as it contains a high concentration of dextrose (a type of sugar). Since 2007 it has been grown for use as a filler for pillows, but is not widely used for packing material – yet.
Lead photo © Tim Au Yeung