Walk down any market aisle and you will be awash in a sea of packaging. Colorful boxes shout persuasive slogans while blister packs foil even the most determined of curious fingers. Take a walk outside and remarkably the experience is quite similar. Colorful berries announce their ripeness while spiky pinecones keep their seeds safe from all but the most dexterous squirrels.
Surprisingly, nature faces the same packaging challenges: containing items together; protecting from the outside world; and advertising their contents to the right customers. Yet, life has spent 3.8 billion years of trial and error to get the process right, adapting, evolving, and creating conditions conducive to life. And as a result, nature's packaging is quite different from ours. The act of looking to the other 30 million species on this planet to learn about sustainable design is known as biomimicry. Here are just a few examples of what we might be able to learn.
Fluids can be difficult to contain in a fail-safe manner. Lettuce is almost 98% water, but when you puncture the skin it doesn't leak. This feat is accomplished by a fibrous matrix that retains water against the force of gravity. What if instead of a thick barrier protecting a liquid package from puncturing, the container itself wouldn't leak?
How about the problem of a collapsible container, allowing concentrates to be rehydrated in their original container? The tick solves this problem by having an inflatable body, known to ingest up to 624 times their body weight. Unique coils expand in the tick's abdomen that allow for over a four-fold increase in size. Imagine a reusable, food-safe, expandable container that can fit in your pocket empty, and fill up with liters of water at your next stop.
Packaging is often used to protect contents from damage. Having a tough skin is nothing new to the sandfish lizard whose skin outperforms steel as an abrasion resistant material. Using a special glycosolated (sugar) surface on its scales, the lizard can "swim" through the sand without a worry. What if our packaging could survive rough handling, yet still be safe enough to eat?
Packaging often needs to inhibit the flow of moisture or air to prevent spoilage. Likewise, many organisms need to stay wet—think about a snail that is mostly water. Dehydration would kill the snail. To avoid this fate, the snails have a built-in reversible system for an organic, tough, biodegradable, non-toxic sealant that easily fits unusual shapes or openings. Mimicking this sealant could completely redefine many types of packaging.
The bright yellow banana certainly advertises itself well to likely consumers, but also has a rather handy modular design. The single units make up the primary packaging, while transport units are efficiently bunched. To consume, the end-user breaks off a single unit, with the remaining units held together until needed. What if more of our products were designed in a modular fashion such that each serving was kept fresh and sanitary with a watertight, freshness indicating, biodegradable material?
Nature colors without toxic dyes or inks. Instead it uses structure. The colors produced by peacocks are derived from just one brown pigment, melanin. The secret of the peacock's plumage is in the microstructure, allowing light to bounce in such a way that bright blue, purple, and green are produced. The permanent color is safe, bright, and edible. Imagine if our print packaging was so safe we could eat it right along with out food.
These examples barely scratch the surface for ways that nature can help us innovate sustainable packaging. More importantly, looking for solutions can also help us reconnect to the natural world. Living organisms use local materials and resources to invent and evolve solutions to an incredibly diverse range of habitats and functions. Why can't our designs perform in the same way? By requiring our packaging and manufacturing processes to be locally dependent on the environment, we can once again establish ourselves as citizens of our world.
Timothy McGee is a trained interdisciplinary biologist. As a biologist at the Design Table with the Biomimicry Guild, he helps clients explore how the natural world can help their company innovate and create a sustainable future. For more, go to www.biomimicryguild.com.