Photo credit: Ecovative Design

Packaging is a necessary evil in our technology-obsessed culture. The more sophisticated the gadget, the more delicate its components, giving birth to an entire industry of products designed to keep them safe during shipping and daily use. But this excessive packaging leads to excessive waste. After all, most of us simply toss it in the trash or recycling bin after extracting the device within.

When it comes to shipping laptops and other fragile computer components, polystyrene foam (pictured above, right) has been an industry standard. But for Dell, and its consumers, this petroleum-based material was no longer acceptable. The company recently announced a high-volume pilot scheme designed to grow, rather than manufacture, cutting-edge packaging that is both sustainable and compostable.

Through a partnership with New York-based Ecovative Design, Dell is testing a series of packaging products made entirely from mushrooms (pictured above, left). Unlike other sustainable packaging alternatives, like those made from corn, the EcoCradle line has no impact on food prices. “Utilizing agricultural waste, cotton hulls are placed in a mold and then injected with the root structure of a mushroom — its mycelium. The mycelium root then feeds off of the agricultural waste slowly until it’s ready to become packaging,” reports Mashable.

Dell has been a leader in sustainable packaging since it debuted bamboo-based packaging in 2009. But that solution was only feasible for smaller devices, like tablets and smart phones. Larger products, like desktops and servers, still had to be packaged in polystyrene foam. When fully molded, the mushroom-based packaging looks and acts like polystyrene foam — only it’s organic and biodegradable, which makes for easier and more environmentally friendly disposal.

Since nothing unnatural goes into making the packaging products, there’s no harm in returning them to the earth when they’re no longer needed — something that can’t be said for plastic packaging. In fact, EcoCradle products can actually be planted back into the ground and used as composted fertilizer for gardens.

And those who doubt that mushrooms can really stand up to the violence of a cross-country trip through the mail system should take heart. “We were pleasantly surprised when we did our packaging tests in the lab, as it actually performed better in drop protection than our standard foam cushions do,” said Oliver Campbell, Dell’s director of procurement for packaging.

Dell’s pilot test will supply mushroom-wrapped Dell PowerEdge R710 server multipacks to an unnamed Fortune 50 company. If all goes well, there are plans to expand the program in the future.

[via Mashable]