Some of the most impactful out-of-the-box sustainability ideas start inside the box.
For evidence, look no further than high-tech giant Dell's recent fiscal 2012 corporate responsibility report.
Over the past four years, Dell has reduced packaging sizes by 12 percent while simultaneously boosting the recyclable or renewable content by 40 percent.
That's good for the environment, of course. It has also helped Dell cut transportation costs, increase its local sourcing and procurement options and get more creative and efficient about delivering multi-product orders for business customers in just one box.
So what is Dell's secret?
Its success stems in part from the company's experiments with alternative materials including compostable bamboo, which it uses with tablet and notebook computers to replace plastic packaging and molded paper pulp; and compostable mushrooms (yes, mushrooms), which replaces the foam Dell uses to ship some server hardware.
"The final product looks and acts like Styrofoam -- only this is organic, biodegradable and can be used as compost or mulch, which makes for easier and more environmental-friendly disposal," Dell's sustainability team wrote in its latest report.
Ready to try some new in-the-box ideas?
Photo of EcoCradle Mushrooms Packaging provided by Ecovative Design.
Next page: Three companies developing plant-based packaging
Here are three companies with eco-friendly alternatives worth investigation.
Dell didn't come up with the whole mushroom cushion idea itself. Its partner in the ongoing pilot is Ecovative Design, a company from Green Island, N.Y., developing new materials derived from mycelium, which it likens to a "living polymer."
Ecovative actually got its big break when Steelcase opted to use its packaging to eliminate plastic foam.
The EcoCradle Mushrooms Packaging material is grown over five to 10 days using a mixture of cotton hulls, rice hulls or wheat chaff -- stuff that otherwise is considered agricultural waste. The big pitch for EcoCradle is its strength and durability to handle heavier items.
Ecovative's co-founders, Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre, came up with the idea as students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute after observing how mushrooms grow on wood chips.
In July, the company signed a licensing deal with Sealed Air to accelerate the production, sales and distribution of the EcoCradle technology.
Bayer, who now serves as Ecovative's CEO, said that the partnership will make alternatives to petrochemical-based packaging available at much larger scale.
As suggested by its Ecovative relationship, Sealed Air, which owns the well-known Bubble Wrap packaging line, is also diversifying into compostable and biodegradable approaches.
One example is the Elmwood, N.J.-based company's PakNatural loose fill packaging, which is meant to replace packaging "peanuts." Made out of plant-based materials, the line was recently certified as biodegradable and compostable by three independent organizations: the Biodegradable Products Institute in the United states, DIN CERTCO in Germany and Vincotte in Belgium.
Mark Bourke, PakNatural sales development manager for Sealed Air, said PakNatural performs well in situations where several different-sized items have to be packaged in a single box or container. It works well for lightweight things such as lights, ceramics or computer and auto parts, he said.
"It does a great job of cradling things so that they don't migrate to the side or the bottom of the box," Bourke said.
One challenge could lie in helping educate package recipients about how to dispose of PakNatural once it has served its purpose, so Sealed Air has created product cards that describe its approach and suggest disposal options.
Another approach to the protective packaging problem comes from StarchTech, which is used by the likes of gadget retailer Crutchfield and toymaker American Girl to protect items during shipment.
Certified as both biodegradable and compostable, StarchTech peanuts and pellets are made from plant starch. The materials dissolve if you run warm water over them, removing a need for disposal.
Technology is provided by the company to customers as an onsite production system. The one installed at Crutchfield saves the company an average of $70,000 to $120,000 in freight every year, according to a case study published on Minneapolis-based StarchTech's website.
Crutchfield used StarchTech pellets to replace polystyrene peanuts. The pellets are shipped to the customer and are expanded on site when they are ready to be used, which generates the savings in shipping costs.
StarchTech figures that for every 23 trailers of expanded polystyrene that its pellets replace, there is a reduction of 96,388 pounds in carbon dioxide emissions.