Thus far in our Packaging the Future Series, we’ve looked at how plants (coconuts) and animals (Wombat butts) can serve as inspiration for planet-friendly packaging. But insects, with their tough, waterproof, breathable and totally biodegradable exoskeletons shouldn’t be ignored. Insects have been kickin’ it on this planet for over 400 million years and have outlived most other animal groups – even through major extinction events like the one that killed the dinosaurs! Even then humble ant can serve as a remarkable model for natural design brilliance – read on to take a look at these tiny titans’ incredible attributes!
Photo © Snap
I’ve had a lifelong fascination with ants; as a child, I spent much of my time in the woods, and unlike most of the other animals who would shy from my presence, ants never paid me any mind, crisscrossing the floor of my forest hideaways with neither interest nor acknowledgement of my existence. This of course made me admire them terribly, and when I learned about how they can lift 20 times their own body weight (actually some species can lift only 10, while others can lift up to 50), I knew my admiration was deserved.
I read up on how ants build their hills, how like the bees in my grandma’s apiary the queen ant breeds and others work, how they are one of the more ancient of the insects, and how successful they are. As reported on Wikipedia,“Their ecological dominance may be measured by their biomass, and estimates in different environments suggest that they contribute 15-20% (on average and nearly 25% in the tropics) of the total terrestrial animal biomass, which exceeds that of the vertebrates…only a few large islands such as Greenland, Iceland, parts of Polynesia and the Hawaiian Islands lack native ant species.” Yep, I was right as an eight-year-old; ants are cool, able to live almost anywhere, and have successfully moved about the Earth for 130 million years (mid-Cretaceous forward). And part of their success can be attributed to their exoskeleton.
The exterior of an ant is tough (please don’t test this by stomping on them!). It both protects them, and also serves as their inside-out skeleton, giving their bodies definition and form. Exoskeletons are much more efficient than interior skeletons (like humans and other vertebrates) because they can serve these two functions instead of just one (support). However, they are usually less flexible than interior bones or cartilage (like sharks have), and so ant size is constrained by their need to move combined with their exterior shells. This means that ants can never grow as big as dogs.
Why exactly? Physics! As explained on the educational site Understanding Evolution, “An extra-wide exoskeleton must be extra heavy, and that clunky armor would require extra strength to move it. But unfortunately for our ambitious ant, its muscles can’t get stronger at a pace that competes with the extra weight the exoskeleton adds. A large terrestrial arthropod with extra-wide legs and a crumple-proof exoskeleton just wouldn’t have the muscle power to move itself around!”
Clearly the ant’s body has served it very well for millions of years, and as we all know, size isn’t everything. If a designer were looking to use the ant exoskeleton for inspiration, some of its other qualities might be more important, like the fact that it is highly breathable, with gases passing through the shell via spiracles (this is important since ants and other insects don’t have lungs, so this is how they respirate). At the same time, the chitinous outer layer is completely waterproof, so ants can get carried away in flash floods, fall into ponds, go for a swim to find food, or get sprayed off the patio and still find their way home later. Lastly, ant bodies are very biodegradable, and don’t take much energy to produce or maintain.
A tough, waterproof but breathable and totally biodegradable material, (in shiny black!) would make an ideal packaging for fruits and veggies (which need to breathe and are often kept in plastic containers which only hasten their demise) or prepared foods, or for high-end disposable plates or silverware. Any instance where you need a breathable container that keeps water out (cell phones? bags? trendy hats?) could be a use for a material with ant exoskeleton properties. This material would be made in a lab or production facility of course — not harvested from tiny ant bodies!
Starre Vartan is founder and editor-in-chief of Eco-Chick and author of The Eco-Chick Guide to Life (St. Martin’s Press). A green living expert, she contributes to The Huffington Post and Mother Nature Network (MNN.com)