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ecovative materials

How to Grow Packaging From Cotton Waste

ecovative materialsA team of scientists with the Agricultural Research Service has developed agricultural waste blends that can be combined with fungi to literally grow custom packaging material.

The biodegradable blends, developed by ARS engineer Greg Holt and his colleagues, are being used by industry partner Ecovative Design to create custom biodegradable packaging to protect computers and other products during shipping.

The process is featured in the November/December 2013 issue of Agricultural Research magazine. ARS is the USDA’s chief intramural scientific research agency.

Woody cotton waste is blended, pasteurized and embedded into a cast tool. A fungus component called mycelium is injected into the tool, where it eventually grows in and around the cotton waste to create a new solid mass. The custom-shaped bio-package is removed and placed into a kiln-like oven to stop the growth and dry the parts.

The final product is biodegradable, compostable and flame retardant. The product was developed as a green alternative to extruded polystyrene foam packaging or styrofoam, which is an estimated $2 billion market, the ARS says.

Industry partner Ecovative Design developed the patented method that uses the fungi. The New York-based company is manufacturing these packaging parts for its corporate clients, including Dell, Steelcase and Crate & Barrel.

The ARS tested the physical and mechanical properties of six different cotton-byproduct blends, to be used as the substrate for the fungi growth, to learn which ones met or exceeded the same characteristics of extruded polystyrene foam. The proprietary blends consist of cottonseed hulls, gypsum or cornstarch combined with two sizes of cotton burr particles. Each blend was inoculated with a single fungus for a total of 12 treatments, which were then evaluated.

Last month, Biome Bioplastics launched its portfolio of  compostable materials for coffee pods based on renewable, natural resources including plant starches and tree byproducts. These bioplastics will degrade to prescribed international standards in composting environments.

Other companies have introduced products in recent months that aim to curb the growing single-cup coffee market’s environmental footprint. Rogers Family Company debuted in October its single-serve coffee pod that it says is 97 percent biodegradable. Canterbury Coffee, a specialty coffee roaster based in Richmond, British Columbia, in July developed what it says is a 92 percent biodegradable single-serve coffee cup.

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