You may know Paul Stamets as a master mycologist who lectures on the magic of mushrooms, like in his recent TED talk where he explains the six ways the mycelium fungus can help save the universe. But he’s also putting those mushrooms to work in a new product called Life Box, which uses the fertilizing power of fungi in a cardboard box that actually grows trees. Yes, that’s right, it’s packaging that sprouts pines.
“A FLAT MARKET”
Cardboard boxes have become a contentious issue for package designers, e-commerce companies, and environmentalists — see our previous Designers Accord conversation with packaging guru Wendy Jedlicka. Cardboard has a greener reputation than plastic, of course, but it still uses lots of water and raw materials and generates a tremendous amount of waste. Companies can choose to use more responsible, post-consumer fiber, or reduce the amount of packaging, like a cardboard box that can be shaped to fit what’s inside. But the process after consumers receive the box is ineffective since the cardboard recycling industry has been glutted, says Stamets. “Cardboard is a flat market,” he says. “There’s too much fiber on the market.” Some recyclers can’t take it, which means that more people are throwing boxes out.
The Life Box represents a opportunity for brands who want to take the next step toward sustainability by adding a unique experience to their transactions, says Stamets. The box itself becomes a canvas for telling a new story to consumers. “This is a clever, simple template for designers worldwide,” he says. “We’re giving them a new palette to connect their creativity.” Sending a Life Box shows that a brand is thinking beyond just recycling, he says. “The giver is sending a message to the recipient that they care about their children, and family and community.” Not surprisingly, Al Gore was Life Box’s first customer, using them to ship his book Our Choice.
A GROWING COMPANY
Life Box looks just like an ordinary corrugated cardboard box. But instead of tossing that cardboard box in the recycling bin, you tear up and moisten your Life Box and place it in a plastic bag (detailed instructions come with the package). Thanks to the mycorrhizal fungi dusted on tree seeds within, the damp cardboard will quickly start to sprout seedlings. The fungi helps to retain moisture and feeds the seedlings nitrogen like fertilizer (the baby trees in turn feed the mushrooms sugar).
Then, using only a very small area covered with soil — “the space of two laptop computers,” says Stamets — the seedlings will sprout a miniature forest. If you have a yard, in about two years you can plant the trees yourself, or take them to a local nature preserve or park. The plan is to work with organizations like the forest service or non-profits like Los Angeles’s Tree People in the near future to help direct people to public lands where their trees are most needed.
FOREST FOR THE TREES
So far Stamets estimates that over 4.7 million tree seeds have been shipped using Life Box, but there’s no way of knowing, beyond anecdotal evidence, how many of those trees are actually growing. In the next few weeks, Life Box will roll out a site that will help track not only how many Life Box trees are planted, but where, using the GPS functions on an iPhone or BlackBerry to “mark” the spot. These will then be displayed on a global Google map. Stamets even has a foolproof idea for fact-checking: “Satellite imaging can tell us they’re there,” he says.
In addition, special care has been taken to prevent the proliferation of invasive species, which has been a criticism of guerrilla gardening and seedbombing movements. Stamets says that about 20 types of seeds have been selected due to their non-invasive nature, and that they use mostly trees, which pack the biggest carbon-sequestering punch. Stamets is assembling a seed collectors’ network where they’ll be able to select and customize the seeds based on where the package will be sent (except Hawaii, which has stringent laws about allowing non-native flora within its borders).
SEEDS OF CHANGE
But gathering and placing those seeds within a traditional corrugated cardboard mold is definitely more expensive, and a company-wide adoption of Life Boxes would definitely require a significant investment. Each Life Box is $1 to $3 per box, more than what a company pays for conventional boxes, but once Life Box receives a order of over a million, the price can fall dramatically. Still, selling that concept to a company will require a cultural shift: Stamets has met with Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, for example, who has already streamlined his own company’s shipping with Frustration-Free Packaging. While Bezos “loved the idea,” says Stamets, simply swapping one cardboard box for another more expensive one is the wrong metric. He envisions the Life Box first as an option when checking out during an online transaction, like gift-wrapping, for example. For a dollar or so extra, your purchase could arrive in a Life Box. That puts the choice — and the cost — in consumers’ hands.
And that’s the catch: The Life Box relies on enthusiastic consumer participation. The consumer has to not only nurture the seedlings for two years, but he has to physically take the trees and plant them in their new home. For kids, it might be fun — since let’s be honest, they only want to play with the box the toy comes in, anyway –but it’s still a lot to ask from anyone, the care and feeding of a box that may outlast what was packed inside of it. That’s the beauty of it, says Stamets. “It’s not just selling a box, it’s an experience.” Instead of say, writing a check to a non-profit or purchasing carbon credits, it lets consumers really have an active role in greening the planet.
Of course, if you do nothing, and just recycle the Life Box, nothing happens, but the cost and energy used to gather and embed the seeds is wasted. And the truth remains — we still need to cut down more trees to make each cardboard box. (Stamets says Life Box uses 70% post-consumer waste, and is working towards getting FSC certification for its paper stock.) How about the carbon emitted to ship the package to the location in the first place — shouldn’t we focus on buying local and cutting back on packaging? An initiative from eBay announced today, for example, focuses on reusing the same box over and over. But Stamets says a mature Life Box would essentially erase the energy used for the purchase to make its journey to you “many times over.”
In short, Stamets refuses to be deterred. “I see this as a vehicle for a worldwide ecological restoration,” says Stamets. “It’s the single simplest way of regreening the planet.” And by way of illustration he offers some simple math. Say that a million Life Boxes were planted. If only one tree grew to maturity from each Box (most can yield a dozen or more), you’d have a million trees. A million trees would sequester about 33,000 tons of carbon per year. After 30 years that’s about a million tons of carbon. So if each box from a million box production run cost $1 to produce, that’s investing $1 for a return of at least $10 for each ton of sequestered carbon. “It’s a good return on investment, beyond the green advertising value, and the financially incalculable multi-generational life-long experiences that is enjoyed by family, friends and the ecosystem’s organisms,” says Stamets — for a box that someone would have otherwise used once and tossed.
[All photos copyright Paul Stamets, The Life Box Company]
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