In 1985 movie director Ron Howard – aka Richie Cunningham from Happy Days – was shooting Cocoon. In this sci-fi picture, a group of aliens from the planet Antarea returned to Earth to retrieve the cocoons in which, thousands of years earlier, some fellow Antareans who had survived the sinking of Atlantis had been kept alive.

Cocoon is also the name of a reforestation project set up by the Land Life Company of Amsterdam and the idea is not so different from Howard’s story. The company’s cocoons are designed to keep a tree that has just been planted alive during the first year, the most critical period in its life cycle.

The cocoon is a container made from recycled paper pulp, waterproofed with natural wax, in the shape of a doughnut ring mould, with a liquid capacity of 25 litres. The seedling, placed in the doughnut hole, is planted in the soil.

Via two short wicks sunk into the water-filled container, the water is slowly transported to the seedling’s roots, meeting its irrigation needs for a year.

The cocoon is closed with a cover to insulate the water reserve and allow the plant to protrude from the centre of the mould. An additional perforated shelter is placed around the seedling to ensure that it receives sufficient light, but protecting it from excess exposure to sunlight and preventing small animals from eating it.

Spores of a special symbotic fungus, mycorrhizal, are added to the soil surrounding the plant’s roots to help it develop a deep and healthy root structure and tap into sub-soil water to produce an independent sapling.

The whole system uses just 25 litres of water, sufficient to meet the plant’s needs during its critical first year.

There are about 2 billion hectares of degraded land around the world, largely the result of a lack of trees. Reforestation is the most immediate solution to the phenomenon, which, according to the UN, is one of the most important challenges we need to win.

In areas where Cocoons have been used, such as Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Mexico, California, the survival rates are between 80{f94e4705dd4b92c5eea9efac2f517841c0e94ef186bd3a34efec40b3a1787622} and 95{f94e4705dd4b92c5eea9efac2f517841c0e94ef186bd3a34efec40b3a1787622}, 10{f94e4705dd4b92c5eea9efac2f517841c0e94ef186bd3a34efec40b3a1787622} better than the typical rate for hand-planted trees.

“The initial costs are certainly higher than for traditional planting,” says Antonella Totaro of Land Life Company. “The Cocoon has an upfront cost of about 8 euro, but subsequent financial and water savings are guaranteed.”

Has the system been used in Italy?

“Between October 2016 and March 2017, it was used in Calabria to plant 2,400 trees as part of a wider reforestation project also involving Spain and Greece.”

How long does it take for the container to degrade?

“A lot depends on the humidity and type of soil, but generally about a year, eighteen months.”

And how long does the 25 litre water reservoir last?

“We are working on a larger prototype to provide a longer duration, but the water supply usually lasts from 6 to 12 months. External environmental conditions are a decisive factor.”

Are some species of tree better suited to this system? Are others less able to adapt?

“Cocoon is designed to assist planting of local tree species, in order to maintain the equilibrium of the surrounding environment. It is also best for species that don’t need too much water.”

What are the best types of soil?

“Sand and clay. Rocky terrain can’t guarantee the necessary layer of soil needed by the new plant.”