I saw an ad recently that said “Don’t throw things away because there is no away.” But then I looked around a housing complex where I once lived and noticed that their garbage pick-up is still three times per week. And each time, nearly everyone’s multiple garbage bins are bulging. Evidently, not everyone is as concerned about the environment.
Perhaps a better approach is to deal with the problem at the source: the manufacturers. And once again, we can look toward Mother Nature’s innovations. There you will find no waste because when it comes to packaging, there is an inherent multi-functionality of materials.
Take shells for example. Clam, oyster and abalone shells are very hard to break because they are made up of alternating layers of calcium carbonate and organic polymers that gradually build up over a long period of time. If a crack occurs in any part of the shell, it won’t spread to another part on account of this design. Just think of the possibilities if you could make packages that won’t damage during shipping. And then re-use them over and over again so you never have to throw them away.
Allan Sellinger and Jeffrey Brinker, scientists at Sandia National Laboratories, took note. They replicated this design and now have a process that can assemble the micro-layers in seconds. Not only are their coatings useful for automotive finishes, but they can be used for optical lenses because they are transparent. Surely there will be many more uses.
There is also the concept of just-in-time package protection in nature. Why have packaging when it isn’t needed? The sea cucumber’s skin, normally pliable, stiffens only when necessary, as when struck by a predator for example. Perhaps it’s possible to make a soft container that can fit into all kinds of tight spaces for easy packing, and then it hardens during the part of the journey when it needs more protection.
Active surfaces are another packaging protection concept that nature gives us. When the sun shines, leaf pores, for example, open to exchange gases and close when they need to retain water. Why not design an intelligent package that can withstand differing temperatures during travel?
Efficiency in packaging is also illustrated in the way some natural materials co-exist. Seeds in nature ride the wind to distant places. Burrs and other sticky materials attach onto other surfaces for a free ride. Hence, the concept of co-packaging to reduce shipping costs.
Innovations are endless in nature. For more information on this interesting topic, read Benyus and Baumeister of the Biomimicry Guild.