One man’s trash is another man’s — mulch, livestock feed, fuel source, and now packaging material.

In fact, gin trash has become valuable enough to change its name from gin waste to cotton by-product, says USDA-ARS engineer Greg Holt, at the USDA Gin Lab in Lubbock, Texas.

Since 1999 Holt has been looking at gin waste — cotton by-product — to determine what value-added uses could be developed to material that in the past had simply been incinerated to get rid of it.

He’s worked on fuel pellets, particle board and hydro-mulch, among other products. His latest endeavor has been with packaging material, a product that could replace some of the polystyrene currently used to protect fragile goods from harm during shipping and handling. The molded pieces of material that protect the corners and screens of electronic devices, as well as furniture, appliances and other breakables, may be packed in cotton boll hulls.

Advantages are numerous. The material is water insoluble, flame retardant, biodegradable and a renewable resource.

“We can hold a torch to the material and it will turn black but will not burn,” Holt said. “It’s been flame tested up to 500 degrees centigrade.”

Although it’s water insoluble, it will break down when it comes in contact with soil. Holt says after a while in the soil spaces in the material open up to allow moisture to penetrate and the material to degrade into organic matter.

It’s also lightweight but strong enough to protect fragile objects. “It was the only material that withstood the crush test,” Holt said.

He’s currently consulting with a company in New York that manufactures packaging materials from gin waste mixes. The company, Ecovative, developed a technology for growing fungus (mushroom) on a biomass. Holt said USDA provides the best biomass blend, “using our experience with gin waste, to assist Ecovative to make the packaging material work for their Fortune 500 Company, Steelcase.”

The current formula includes a blend of mostly cotton boll hulls, which is put into molds and inoculated with a fungus that grows into spaces between individual hulls, weaving tendrils and filaments through the blend and holding the pieces together.

“One day after inoculation the fungus begins to grow,” Holt said. “It takes five days to complete the process. By day three it’s almost completely covered. They pop it out of the mold and put it into an oven to kill the fungus.”