'Air' plastic and mushroom cushions - Dell packages the future

By Fiona Graham
Technology of business reporter, BBC News

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
These mushrooms might be related to the cushions surrounding your brand new server

"It's bio-magic," says Dell's head of packaging, Oliver Campbell, with a big smile.

He's holding a mundane-looking plastic bag. But this isn't just any old piece of future landfill. This bag has literally been plucked from the air we breathe.

Normal plastic is made from oil, but this is made from AirCarbon - carbon drawn from methane from cattle farms (cows having, shall we say, a gassy disposition), common landfill or anywhere really that produces the gas.

It is grabbed before it enters the atmosphere, so not only does this avoid the use of fossil fuels, it actually removes greenhouse gases from the environment.

It's made by a Californian company called Newlight that Dell is working with.

"It reacts with this bio-catalyst, and that starts a reaction to separate carbon and the oxygen in that gas stream, and then goes through a fermentation process to further derive the material," says Mr Campbell.

"And from that we can go make various types of plastics."

Image caption,
Dell's director of packaging, Oliver Campbell, with a packing cushion made from mushroom mycelium
Image source, dell
Image caption,
Carbon copy: This plastic bag is made from carbon that would otherwise end up in the air we breathe

The process has been certified as carbon negative by Trucost and NSF Sustainability, and actually costs less to produce than oil-based plastics, says Mr Campbell.

It's one of the sustainable packaging materials - including bamboo, wheat grass and even sponges grown from mushroom spores - the computer giant is now using in its supply chain, all introduced on Mr Campbell's watch.

"I think this really shows what happens when sustainability is done right, you can make things that are better for the environment and cost less," he says.

"Because that's really what's going to propel these technologies forward."

Making packaging greener is an increasing preoccupation for big business around the world. Although Dell is not alone in this, the company has actively tried to innovate and get involved in the development of these new technologies, in partnership with small start-ups with good ideas.

The initiatives have won both Mr Campbell and Dell a slew of awards, and he is now a regular on the conference circuit.

Wrap it up

Mr Campbell stepped into his role in Dell's packaging department in 2006 - and has been instrumental in implementing the company's '3 Cs' - cube (reduce packing size), content (what it's made of), and curb (meaning to limit something that is not wanted).

"When we started to listen to customers, and social media played a big role in this, we were getting beat up about some boxes that were too big," he says.

"I am just glad my mother never read all that stuff. Because as you know social media can be, shall we say, direct and crude in its opinions.

"What people wanted us to do was to care as much about something as they did."

Drawing on his background in farming, the first material Mr Campbell decided to try was bamboo.

Image source, dell
Image caption,
The bamboo used for packing is sourced from sustainably managed forests

"I drew from that agricultural experience to say, 'Hey, what ideas could we creatively borrow or steal and apply to packaging?' Bamboo came to mind.

"Not only because of its rate of growth, but because of the mechanical properties, tensile strength equivalent to that of steel, and we felt that would be a good way to protect our hi-tech products."

It wasn't just a question of working out how to turn raw bamboo into cardboard boxes though. Other considerations cropped up, such as: can you recycle it? (It actually improves recycled paper streams thanks to its long fibres and strength.)

And then there are the pandas.

"I didn't want to be known as the guy who was ripping bamboos from the mouths of baby pandas, and end up on the BBC!" says Mr Campbell.

As result, all Dell bamboo is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council and sourced far away from panda habitats.

It proved to be very successful, so much so that even two years ago, about 70% of Dell notebooks were shipped in the material.

Then prices started to rise.

"[We were a] victim of our own success I think. By popularising bamboo, others really start to take a look at it."

Image source, Bryan Kuntz
Image caption,
Despite early success with bamboo packaging, the company looked elsewhere as prices soared
Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Baby pandas can rest assured Dell's bamboo packaging won't interfere with dinner

Grow your own

Polystyrene is non-biodegradable and rarely recycled, a figure of hate in environmental circles, making finding an alternative something of a priority.

The material they're now starting to use is pretty much the polar opposite. The packing sponges are "grown" using mushroom spores, leaving large white blocks that feel unnervingly like mushroom skin. And in a way it is - it's actually the mycelium, the root system.

"The question was, what if you could eat your packaging," says Mr Campbell.

Old substrate is collected from mushroom farms - at the moment for free - and used to form the shape of the sponge.

"[The structure] is placed on a mould, and then it's injected with mushroom spawn, so that's like mushroom seed. The spawn utilises remaining carbohydrates and sugars in the plant material to grow."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Substrate is the substance the mushrooms are grown in - just like at this farm in France
Image caption,
On the left is the packing sponge made from mushroom spores; on the right is packaging made from wheatgrass

Not only is it completely biodegradable and compostable - it appears to be even more durable and flexible than the man-made alternative, and is also flame retardant.

"We tested the entire supply chain, in terms of does the product arrive there safe? And that's the number one consideration, because if it arrives in a damaged condition it's just like the least sustainable solution," says Mr Campbell.

"We were actually surprised when we looked at the cellular structure under a microscope, you are looking at a root structure and these roots have little tendrils and they are interlocking, it's kind of like Velcro and it's flexing and absorbing the energy in ways that your foam can't.

"Sometimes Mother Nature has a few tricks up her sleeve, right?"

Dell is working with a small start-up called Ecovative to produce the packaging, and has been involved from the start in developing the product, and trialling it with a Fortune 500 company.

The technology is being used by companies such as furniture chain Crate and Barrel, but Dell remains the only technology customer, according to Mr Campbell.

"We've realised the benefit of what small entrepreneurial companies can do," he says.

"It means my team don't have to be ergonomists or chemists or experts in all these different things, we really just have to go out and find some of the people in the areas that we're looking for.

"It's okay to go ask for help."

Leaves of grass

Mr Campbell's team holds regular innovation days, where ideas are bounced around, and start-ups and suppliers are given an opportunity to showcase themselves.

Another company the multinational has partnered with is YFYJupiter, creating packaging using wheatgrass, an agricultural by-product.

Image source, Dell
Image caption,
Before Dell began buying waste straw from these Chinese farmers, they would burn the surplus stalks
Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Smoke from burning straw after the harvest contributes to high levels of pollution in cities like Beijing

"In countries like China they burn this material, so they are contributing to particulate matter in the atmosphere, it contributes to smog," says Mr Campbell.

"So farmers in rural areas in China now are getting paid for something that they didn't before, so it's increasing incomes, [it helps] keep people in rural areas, and having grown up in a rural area myself I really understand that."

But is there really enough wheatgrass produced each year to keep Dell in cardboard? Apparently so, according to Mr Campbell.

He says research indicates that there's enough waste straw material in China to potentially produce enough paper to satisfy global demand. And again, the wheatgrass cardboard is cheaper to produce.

As with the other packaging, the process has involved following through the entire supply chain and being involved in the development of the packaging, as well as gauging the opinion of the Chinese authorities on the environmental benefits.

"I think people intrinsically know that if it costs more, it is probably not really sustainable, and you're probably not doing a good job with the technology, so when it costs less, it's something that can stick," says Mr Campbell.

"When I speak at conferences, I often ask people: who thinks sustainability costs more? And several years ago most of them [would] raise their hand.

"Now it's more like 50-50. So we are making progress and I would say it's due to technologies like [these] coming online."

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