Coconut Husks Find New Life as Packaging

Coconut Husks Find New Life as Packaging

Coconut shells - CC license by Flickr use C.A.P.

Two companies have teamed up to turn some of the 50 million coconuts that fall every year into reusable packaging.

Waco-based Whole Tree has been researching uses for coconut husks for about two years, and recently partnered with packaging firm Compadre to design and test different uses for coconut-based materials.

"Oftentimes, packaging is single use," said Blake Mosher, executive vice president of Whole Tree. "We think there is some significant opportunity using our material for multi-use packaging."

For one, the fiber in coconut husks is high in lignin, a material with natural burn resistance. While that's a positive quality for packaging and other products, it's a negative when it comes to disposing of coconut shells.

When coconuts are processed, Mosher said, the shells and husks are commonly discarded. The lignin content makes it difficult to burn the piles of shells, so some companies douse the waste in kerosene to burn it up. When the piles are left sitting, the pith in the husks can soak up 10 times their weight in water and create breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

In addition to finding a better use for unwanted husks, Whole Tree is attempting to provide better lives for coconut farmers - by providing income for material they currently throw away - since they've found that about 90 percent of coconut farmers live on less than $500 a year.

Whole Tree was founded by Walter Bradley, a materials and engineering professor at Baylor University who has been investigating uses for coconut husks and fiber for over four years.

Coconut/thermoplastic compositeThe company has developed a nonwoven process for combining coconut fiber with thermoplastic to create a composite material (right) it says it strong, stiff and better for forming shapes than other natural fiber composites.

Mosher said the company is focusing on using the material to make packaging that goes inside boxes, primarily packaging that is formed to fit around products like electronics. Using coconut fibers to make outer packaging is still in the early research and development phase, Mosher said.

The company is much further ahead on inner packaging, and now has a non-exclusive license with Compadre to investigate the potential for coconut-based packaging. While Whole Tree provides all the research, licensing and marketing, Compadre is handling the design, testing and engineering of the packaging.

Coconut shells - CC license by Flickr use C.A.P.; Whole Tree material courtesy Whole Tree