I’m sitting on a stool watching an info-video at the Dairy Management booth at the Worldwide Food Expo in Chicago. The stool, designed by Bruce Mau Design, is a bright red box. It is lightweight, yet sturdy. It also is made from cow manure. So, too, is the exhibit’s video-display case, kiosks of stacked milk cartons, and work tables.
And no, the material doesn’t look or smell like cow poop. And no again, you can’t buy it in stores—at least not yet.
The booth is a public showcase of a dairy industry initiative to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by 2020. For a new product, it came together fast. Erin Fitzgerald, Dairy Management’s director of social & environmental innovation, tells me she decided to enlist Mau after hearing him speak about sustainable design in May, as she was prepping for the sustainable-themed trade show.
Contractor and client quickly agreed that the booth itself should carry the eco-message. But how? While researching dairy farming, Tom Keogh, Bruce Mau Design’s project director, says the Toronto-based team came across experiments by a scientist in Madison, Wis. The scientist, John Hunt, a general engineer with the USDA’s Forest Service, had been testing alternatives to wood pulp in making paper and particle board. Among them: fiber-rich cow manure.
“There’s a moment during the creative process,” adds Paddy Harrington, a Bruce Mau Design creative director, “when someone says, the whole thing could be made of cow manure.” And so it would be.
In early September, the designers asked Hunt to see what he could make. Hunt tells me he got a truckload of manure from a nearby farm. He then basically cooked it, driving off the methane which, in a commercial process, could be used to power the machinery. "We took the stink out of it," he says. What was left was a slurry which could be used as fertilizer and what Hunt calls "digestive solids."
On one of the kiosks—each is a stack of crates in a primary color—there are a few small bowls of this dried material. Sure, it's gone through a cow, but it feels fluffy like tufts of lint. And, I swear, it is odorless.
Hunt blended a 50-50 mixture of manure and pulped corrugated boxes and pressed them into particle-board panels that measure two feet by eight feet and 3/16ths of an inch thick. The Bruce Mau Design team—there were five full-time employees on the project, plus another five or so occasional participants—then cut them into shapes to form stools, milk crates, and tables that can be flat-packed and assembled on site.
To make sure conventioneers get the message, they stamped the booth material: "Made of Manure" and "Powered by Cows."
The cow-manure booth isn't cost-competitive compared to conventional materials. Fitzgerald won't tell me what Dairy Management spent, but she says the setup cost less than the booths all around hers, which are way fancier. And its price could come down if Hunt can pique some business to start making industrial-size batches of the stuff.
Dairy Management intends to use the props again in other displays, Fitzgerald says. It seems durable. Hunt hands me a small sheet. I can make it flex, but can't break it. And once they've done their job, the material could be tossed into a field, where, like cow poop, it would break down and become an all-natural fertilizer.
Mau chuckles about the project. Talking with me on a cell phone while on a client visit, he says his daughters, ages 15, 11, and 9, wouldn't allow him to bring the bovine furniture home. "They reacted the way we all do when we first hear about this. But it is pretty amazing," he says. "What you do and the way you do it is part of the image. The team set out to demonstrate a new way of thinking. I think it got the job done."