Parcels for the Planet: Dell's Oliver Campbell Talks Bamboo and Mushroom Packaging

Jun 24, 2011· 4 MIN READ
Salvatore Cardoni holds a political science degree from the George Washington University. He's written about all things environment since 2007.

A bit of bamboo cushioning for your Dell Streak. (Photo: Dell)

In 2006, when Oliver Campbell became Dell’s Procurement Director—the formal way of saying he was given the keys to the company’s packaging division—he set himself a modest goal.

To create the best packaging team. In any industry. In the world.

Five years on, if Team Campbell hasn’t done exactly that, please, show us which company has?

Under Campbell, the computer behemoth has reinvented the bar and elevated the wheel (to mix a metaphor, or two) as to what exactly the public can expect, demand even, from the packaging that protects its technology from warehouse to doorstep.

Since 2009, Dell has slashed the amount of packaging material it uses by 18.2 million pounds. Recycled content in its packaging has jumped by 32 percent. Fifty percent of its packaging materials can be recycled. By next year, the company hopes this number will be closer to 75 percent.

Also in 2009: the company began shipping certain laptops in trays made from bamboo, sourced from Chinese farms that don't clear-cut.

In part due to the efforts of Campbell’s team, Newsweek ranked Dell as the greenest company in America last fall.

All this before the company went ’shrooming two months ago. No, not that kind. Dell is in a pilot phase to ship some of its servers in compostable mushroom-based foam, a method that requires 98 percent less energy to make than Styrofoam.

TakePart caught up with Campbell to talk bamboo, mushrooms, and the ABC’s of Dell’s three C’s of packing.

TakePart: What are the ‘three Cs’ of DELL packaging?

Oliver Campbell: It stands for ‘cube,’ ‘content,’ and ‘curb.’ It was developed directly out of the strengths of our best model, which is speaking with customers directly.

Several years ago we wanted to improve our packaging and we spoke to customers—enterprise customers, public customers, small businesses, consumers, customers of all stripes—and we had three consistent messages that we received back from them.

The first was the cube: ‘Can you make your packaging smaller?’ The second one was content: ‘Can you use more recyclable or sustainable material?’ And the third one was ‘Hey, DELL, can you help me do something about how we dispose of our packaging? Can we do it in a more sustainable manner?’

We wanted to utilize local solutions. Sometimes you hear about people wanting to ship packaging all around the country to reuse it. That works in a few instances, but it really doesn’t work for our main product.

That was the genesis of the ‘three Cs.’ We didn’t hear people say, ‘Hey, I want fancier packaging.’ It was really around sustainability and the green story around packaging.

TP: In 2009 Dell added renewable bamboo to the packaging portfolio. How many trees has this allowed the company to save per year?

OC: I think your question really goes to: how broadly are we using bamboo? The answer is very broadly. On our consumer notebooks, by the end of this year, we’ll have about half packaged in bamboo. On our business notebooks, about three-quarters will be packaged in bamboo by the end of the year.

As for the number of trees saved, we did a calculation back in February and I believe the number was around 70,000, according to our forest tree calculator.

TP: What kind of due diligence do you do on the bamboo to ensure it is sustainably harvested and not clear-cut?

OC: We’ve done a couple of things. We’ve worked with Forest Stewardship Council and we’ve insisted on FSC-certified bamboo from the supply chain, from where it’s harvested to where it goes into our factories to box our computers.

We’ve also walked the supply chain. I personally walked that supply chain last year. I went to Jiangxi Province. We went up in the mountains where they harvested it. We spoke with the foresters. I even had the opportunity to chop down some bamboo myself. We followed that process through the pulping and then the molding processes.

Dell's eco-friendly fungi foam. (Photo: Dell)

TP: Give our audience the basics on your new mushroom packaging initiative.

OC: It’s a complement to our bamboo packaging. Our bamboo packaging works great for our lighter products like our phones and our notebooks. The mushroom packaging is really targeted more for our heavy desktops and server products. It’s a new technology, and it’s also agriculturally based, as is bamboo.

The technology involves using waste products like cotton hulls and rice hulls. That material is placed in a mold. In our case, it’s in the form of a cushion to protect the server. Then it’s injected with mushroom spawn or mycelium. That spawn propagates through the mold. It utilizes the inherent sugars and carbohydrates in the agricultural waste as its food source.

This is why organizations—such as the National Science Foundation, U.S. EPA, USDA—have been interested in this technology. It doesn’t rely on petroleum-based products like most of your Styrofoams do, or natural gas, which some of your polyethylenes rely on, or nuclear power, to name three sources that have been in the news a lot.

It’s all kind of Mother Nature-based.

TP: How long does it take to grow?

OC: For the size of cushions we have, it takes about five to ten days. They require almost no external energy and we’re using local materials. That’s what’s exciting to us. From a life cycle perspective, the material is completely biodegradable and compostable. It makes it easy to dispose of.

TP: Does it grow in a green house or in, say, a big room?

OC: It actually grows in a warehouse. To grow mushrooms, you really don’t need light. They grow in trays. It’s actually a very exciting bio-technology.

TP: Dell is an industry leader in sustainable packaging. What’s next for your team in terms of raising the bar for yourselves and for your peers?

OC: That’s a good question. We are definitely interested in raising the bar. I think it will involve, at some level, how we work with others outside our industry around recycling materials. I think paradigms around sourcing are starting to change. That’s probably about as explicit as I can be on that right now.

TP: What’s the one thing a consumer can do to affect change in the packaging industry that takes less than five minutes or costs less than five dollars?

OC: Let us know how you feel about packaging. Send a note to Dell. That type of voice does make a difference. We pay attention to it.

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