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
Goose down is a commonly used natural material, but it comes at the expense of the life of the goose (feathers are plucked after the animal has been killed and can’t be harvested while the animal is alive, like sheep’s wool, which many people don’t realize). However, it is a great insulator for warmth, and lasts for years without much loss in its insulating power. Down isn’t really used as a packaging material for shipping because it’s pretty costly. Recycling used goose down, from bedding, furniture and pillows, could be a way to make final use of this material before composting it, although goose down can be recycled quite a few times before it even makes it to this stage.
The tropical Kapok tree yields a material that is very lightweight, water-resistant and buoyant. Like milkweed, its fiber is used by the plant for seed protection and dispersal. Produced by the Ceiba pentandra tree in the Caribbean, South America and Africa in fairly high volume, it can provide a decent income to the people who live near the tree and collect the fibers, as it does require a high degree of hand-processing. As the tree often grows in places where people need jobs and don’t necessarily have other options or technology, this can be an ideal material for a collective to harvest. People use it as a filling for stuffed animals and as an allergen-free pillow stuffing. The fiber is mold and dust-mite resistant and and has a silky texture, but it looks like cotton. Although it’s not strong enough to be spun into yarn, other uses outside of filler are being looked into.
Popcorn is used by a number of eco-conscious companies in place of those infuriating packing peanuts (I can’t be the only one who always manages to get teensy pieces of styrofoam peanut everywhere anytime they are sent to me; even if I didn’t hate styrofoam because of its deleterious environmental effects, it is one of the few substances that could just plain annoy me to death). Popcorn, of course, doesn’t just appear fully formed — energy is needed to grow the corn and pop it, it’s not waterproof, and pests can be attracted to it.
But as long as it’s kept dry, popcorn protects as well as styrofoam peanuts, and it’s almost as lightweight, depending on the type of popcorn used. For packages that are being shipped quickly in dry conditions, it can work well. It’s also totally biodegradable, composts quickly, and though I wouldn’t chance actually eating it, if you have a backyard, local birds will have a feast if you leave it out for them. Popcorn is a great material for small businesses or individuals to use (be sure to air pop and find other tips here).
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)