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Cardboard Has Taken Over Our Lives. Where Does It Come From?

Still, a 91 recyclability rate percent is not 100 percent, and in recent years, the packaging industry has invested millions of dollars in reducing — or more quixotically, eliminating — further waste from the box-making process. In 2021, a British company called Notpla (motto: “We make packaging disappear”) introduced a line of boxes coated with a compostable seaweed product; Ecovative Design, a New York State start-up, is experimenting with mushroom-based packaging. Novel approaches, both, and in time, plant-based boxes could come to supplement their cardboard counterparts. But as the packaging scientists Tom Corrigan and Marcia Popa told me when I visited their lab on the 3M campus in Saint Paul, Minn., scale is the major obstacle: Trees are big. Mushrooms are small. You’d have to harvest a prodigious number of mycelium to rival the output of a pulp mill.

“Paper is a lot more, well, available,” Popa said.

“The infrastructure is in place,” her colleague agreed.

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Corrigan is lean and tall; with his unguarded effusiveness and sandy, unkempt hair, he calls to mind a middle-school science teacher. A few years ago, he told me, he became “completely fixated on the idea of using paper to help make better conformable packaging” — a fiber-based version of Bubble Wrap, essentially, that could help cut down on the amount of dead air in a package. The material would have to be both thin enough to ship and expandable, in order to fill the space in a box, preventing the protected object from slamming around inside. Ultimately, he found his inspiration in a book about the Japanese art of kirigami, a form of origami that incorporates cutting and slicing. “One Fourth of July,” he recalled, “I went to the hammock in my backyard, and sketched out a bunch of concepts,” basing the sketches on the designs he’d seen in the kirigami book. “And what I realized was that if you made the right perforations, you could get paper packaging that would expand and contract exactly like an accordion.”

For months, Corrigan, Popa and a small team prototyped the material, which was released earlier this year by 3M under the name Cushion Lock. “Sometimes it’d just be me with an X-acto knife, and sometimes I’d use a CAD program and have it laser-cut here in the lab,” Corrigan said. “It was all about perfecting the pattern and the protectivity.” As part of their testing regimen, Corrigan’s team would wrap random objects in Cushion Lock and drop them from various heights. Corrigan handed me a spool of Cushion Lock. It compressed as fluidly as if it were made of water. “It gets distributed as a dense roll of paper, right?” Corrigan said. “But it can expand to 60 times its volume. So you’re saving a ton of storage space.”

Officially, 3M has positioned Cushion Lock as a packaging aid rather than as packaging itself; it has no stackability nor rigidity, and thus no crush protection. But Corrigan and Popa told me they could envision other applications: With the addition of a containerboard liner, Cushion Lock might become a lightweight and recyclable pouch or mailer, able to conform to nonbreakable objects like clothing with an exactitude that a box wouldn’t be able to match.

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