Success Story

Packaging That Grows Solves the Problem of Cotton Gin Waste

wine shipper with bottle

Dr. Gregory Holt was trying everything he could think of to find a use for the millions of tons of troublesome cotton-gin waste that piles up in America's Cotton Belt every year.

Holt and his colleagues at an Agricultural Research Service (ARS) lab in Lubbock, Texas, first converted the unused cotton burrs, sticks, and other detritus from the ginning process into roughage for livestock feed. However, that did not prove to be economical.

They then used the gin waste to create hydromulch, the bright blue or green liquid mulch commonly sprayed along the sides of highways to prevent erosion until vegetation grows in. Next, the lab tried using the waste to create fuel pellets for pellet-burning stoves. However, neither application uses enough of the gin waste to solve the ginners' problem.

"We were going down the hit list," said Holt, an agricultural engineer at the ARS Cotton Production and Processing Researching Unit in Lubbock.

And then in 2009, the lab found a use that could potentially dispose of all the cotton gin waste generated each year: molded packaging and insulation boards. The result was a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) that has led to a successful commercial product.

Cotton gin waste has long been a burr in the saddle of the ginning industry. Depending on the type of harvesting process, from 100 to 700 pounds of debris is generated for every 500 pounds of cotton baled, according to Holt. It poses a potential fire hazard and a financial liability since disposal of the waste can be expensive.

Holt's research on the topic began when he asked members of the Texas Cotton Ginners Association for their top ten concerns, and he learned that gin waste was number two on the list.

After years of trying different uses for the waste, with mixed results, the lab began working with Ecovative Design, a company in Green Island, New York, that actually grows packaging material by combining mushroom fungus with a biomass. The biomass serves as a substrate on which the fungus grows.

As the material is grown, it is molded to fit the desired shape. It is then dried, and the fungal growth is terminated. The 100 percent biodegradable material is seen as an environmentally friendly replacement for the type of polystyrene packaging that is commonly used to ship everything from computers to wine bottles.

Ecovative was having trouble finding the right kind of biomass to use, and asked the lab for some samples of gin waste. The company's initial experiments were successful, and the CRADA was signed in 2010.

The key, said Holt, was to find the right formulation for the biomass to be used. Starch, gypsum and other materials were added to the gin waste, and different particle sizes in a variety of proportions were tested. Working collaboratively with Ecovative, the lab processed the formulations, which were then sent to the company for testing.

Gin waste turned out to be an excellent biomass, and by the summer of 2010 Ecovative began successfully launching the brand EcoCradle, its molded packaging material, selling it to two Fortune 500 companies.

Ecovative is also using the gin waste to make insulation for buildings, said Holt. One significant advantage of the material is that it does not burn or give off dangerous gasses when exposed to flame. Thanks to the breakthrough with an effective biomass, Ecovative has expanded from two employees to 40, according to Holt.

The lab and Ecovative are exploring a variety of other uses, such as acoustic tiles, for the cotton-gin-waste biomass. "We're broadening our horizons," said Holt. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is even experimenting with using the material for buoys that measure ocean currents and other information. One benefit is that this type of buoy does not contribute waste to the oceans by eventually becoming waterlogged and sinking, and then being eaten by fish.