What Would Nature Do?

Posted: December 17, 2010 by
Cindy Gilbert

You may have heard about the remarkable SunChips bag redesign revolution—or perhaps you heard the bag itself, because of the excessively loud, crinkling noises generated by Frito-Lay’s innovative, 100% compostable packaging. Disappointingly, after months of design, prototyping, testing, and marketing, Frito-Lay (snack giant and number 28 on Fast Company’s 100 of the World’s Most Innovative Companies of 2010 list) is hushing the eco-friendly bag campaign because it is causing too much noise. Literally.
What can be learned here? The idea is good, the company’s heart and mind (and finances) are in the right place yet the design fails to meet user expectations where no one anticipated there would be an issue. Would you buy a product sealed in a package that’s louder than a subway train (at 95 decibels, according to Fast Company) when opened, even if it was 100% compostable and biodegrades after a mere 14 months?
Apparently, the more than 52,000 Facebook fans of the “Sorry But I Can't Hear You Over This Sun Chips Bag” group will not be opening their wallets, or any compostable SunChips bags, anytime soon. Frito-Lay’s brand-owners, to their credit, are still committed to sustainable ideals and have indicated that they will try a similar concept again.
As we move into the new paradigm of sustainable design, looking to nature can help us work through issues with a fresh approach: “What would nature do in this situation?” What if the designers on this project had asked this question before setting out to revolutionize the snack delivery experience? What if all designers asked how nature makes packaging and makes the most of that packaging? A quick search in, The Biomimicry Institute’s free website on nature’s design strategies, reveals just 91 hits on the subject of packaging.

R&D., a.k.a evolution
Typical packaging for most snack food products has several layers and coatings. Each layer serves a specific function ranging from water/vapor barrier protection to advertising to flexibility. Likewise, ingenious innovation and billions of years of R&D (a.k.a. evolution), many organisms are able to meet the same packaging needs faced by Frito-Lay’s designers—but with their own multifunctional, sustainable, and 100% compostable packaging.
Take the peapod. It has a brilliant green, waxy outer layer to meet the functions of a flexible, waterproof, and protective container for the product (peas) housed inside. It even comes with an easy-open, zipper-like closure, is biodegradable, has lots of room for advertising, delivers a quiet user experience, and is edible!
Imagine a world where sustainable packaging is synonymous with the elegant, beautiful, biodegradable packaging strategies employed by pea pods—and functionally appropriate on the levels of user experience and materials as well. Now, that’s remarkable.
Here’s two examples of packaging that takes its form and function directly from nature:

Agricultural waste packaging that imitates nature's function:
Bagasse Clamshell
These bagasse hinged clamshells are made from sugarcane and achieve a similar look and feel to paper. The clamshells will completely compost under commercial composting conditions in just 45-60 days.

Using nature to make packaging:
Myco-Bowls by Ecovative Design
These bowls are made of seed husks and mycelium, and taper from a circle to a hexagon shaped base. The company also produces all-natural EcoCradle packing materials that are customizable, made from cotton seed and buck wheat hulls bonded together with mushroom root.

Cindy Gilbert is program coordinator for Minneapolis College of Art and Design’s Online Sustainable Design Program (