How Dell hopes to ship your next server — on mushrooms

April 5, 2011, 7:21 PM UTC

Could a friendly fungus eventually eliminate styrofoam packaging?  Don’t laugh, it just might.

Dell's Oliver Campbell with the company's new mushroom-based Green Packaging. Credit: Russ Curtis

FORTUNE — If your job was to ship 250 pounds and $25,000 dollars worth of computer servers, you’d no doubt pack them in a box using only the safest materials.  And yet when Dell (DELL)  ships four of its PowerEdge R710 servers it will soon offer a new packaging made of…mushrooms.

The idea seems off-the-wall, but it also seems to work.  Dell first builds a mold, then fills it with cotton husks, a waste product left over from cotton gins.  Next it injects mushroom spawn, which eats the sugars and carbohydrates in the cotton. As its root structure grows it hardens to fill the mold.

“We’re not reliant on carbon- or nuclear-based fuels to grow this packaging,” says Oliver Campbell, Dell’s director of procurement packaging. “It’s self-energizing.”

An example of the packaging Campbell showed off seemed to have roughly the same weight and durability as standard styrofoam or cardboard packaging.  The company unveiled the fungus-based innovation today at Fortune’s Brainstorm Green conference.

Previously Dell has made a big push to use more bamboo in consumer packaging, and that plant is now used in most of the consumer laptops that Dell ships.  (Bamboo works better on lower-weight products; the mushrooms are better for heavier goods.) Campbell now has sample of both the mushroom- and bamboo-based packaging in his backyard composter.

Dell is just starting a pilot program to fully test the mushroom-based material. Campbell says that he believes Dell can make the new packaging cost competitive with its less green alternatives.  Proving that’s true will be the real trick, as Campbell freely admits: “Green has to be economically sustainable.”

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