Wheat straw packing protects Dell laptops, saves waste and cuts air pollution in China
Dell is using wheat straw fibre to pack its laptops in Europe, promising the move will get the firm one step closer to its goal of having completely “waste free” packaging by 2020, while also having the benefit of cutting air pollution in China.
Wheat straw is just the latest waste product the company has adopted, joining bamboo and mushroom materials as options to replace the “cushions” which protect Dell’s products inside their boxes.
It’s starting with the smallest, most high-volume and packaging-intensive products, and will spread up to include servers as well, Dell’s global director of packaging, Oliver Campbell told TechWeekEurope.
Waste -free packaging
“We want all Dell packaging to be either recyclable or compostable by 202,” Campbell told us. “We have achieved about 58 percent of that goal , but we still have a lot of work to do.”
Wheat straw packaging looks similar to the various kinds of cardboard material already used for cushions inside packing boxes, and can be put directly into the paper recycling stream by the user when the device is unpacked. However, it is much better for the environment, as the straw would otherwise be harmful, says Campbell.
“China has a very bad air pollution problem,” he said. “A proportion of that is contributed through burning wheat straw. So we are taking a substance that has a negative environmental impact and using it in the making of paper – so it becoms beneficial.”
Turning wheat straw into paper is not straightforward, as it contains a lot of lignin fibre. Dell has worked with YFY, a Taiwanese paper company, which came up with the idea of using straw, and developed the biotechnology necessary to break down the lignin without using toxic substances.
“YFY developed enzymes like those in a cow’s stomach, to break down the wheat straw into paper pulp without using powerful chemicals,” said Campbell. “The development took a number of years, as hundreds of different approaches had to be tried till we got one that worked economically.”
So far, YFY has set up a plant in China to produce what it calls “Npulp”. It produces a yield of around 50 percent – but the remaining pulp makes good agricultural fertiliser and can be sold to local farmers, said Campbell.
Wheat straw doesn’t replace earlier materials and Dell is planning to expand its use of mushroom packaging.
As well as cutting waste, the company is also planning to cut costs. The use of new materials has cut 20 million pounds of weight from its supply chain, and cut its packaging bill by more than $18 million. That’s an important factor, as efforts to drive more sustainable packaging through regulations have not been 100 percent effective.
So while the effective banning of polystyrene from packaging has moved things on, Campbell says the main drivers have been cutting waste and cost for Dell, and responding to customer demands.
“Our direct model means we see what customers want,” he said. “In the last few years, we have had an increasing number of requests to describe our green packaging plans. Customers are also asking about energy consumption and recycled content.”