Future Design Series: Sustainable Food Packaging Alternatives to Plastic

Future Design Series: Sustainable Food Packaging Alternatives to Plastic

One of the basic necessities vital to man is food. Long before man could speak, man was eating. Food and the ability to find it was the line between survival and extinction. As man advanced to the present time, the challenge became how to preserve the food and have it conveniently and readily available.

Cue in food packaging and hence; plastic. Since plastic was invented in 1907, it has completely dominated the food packaging industry, alongside our daily lives. The problem though is that every piece of plastic ever manufactured from this inception is still in existence today. To make matters worse, these bits of plastic have begun to make their way to the oceans into the belly of fish and from there, on to our plates.

The packaging industry is under enormous pressure to create alternative forms of food packaging as the environmental consequences of our reliance on single-use plastic beverage cups, straws, lids and plastic bags has become clearer across the globe.

Made Trade advert

Technology alone may not be enough to get us out of this mess, but the good news is that our general psychology on this issue has begun to change. On that note, here are the sustainable alternatives to plastic already setting the pace for the future of food and beverage packaging: 

1. Glass and paper

Glass and paper have long been alternatives to plastic in food packaging. Before the dominance of plastic, glass and paper were used extensively, and with the plastic epidemic, there has been a return to these packaging materials. Experts even say they may be our future.

Paper is recyclable and compostable and when used in food packaging, it maintains the hygiene, quality and safety of food products at an economical price. 

Glass is made from naturally-occurring ingredients like sand, soda ash and lime-stone and so is almost perpetually recyclable.

Original repack has designed a service where their paper packaging can be folded into the size of a letter and posted from any mailbox for reuse; while Stoelzle manufactures and recycles glass at the least detrimental conditions possible for our environment.

Will and Jaden Smith’s Just Water bottles are recyclable (think milk or juice cartons) and consists of 54% paper, 28% plant-based plastic, 3% aluminium and 15% protective plastic film. The cap is made from sugarcane.

Just Water. Photo: Ardene Foundation.

VetroPack produces sustainable packaging bottles made of lightweight glass thereby saving environmental resources by reducing energy and raw material consumption, while Boxed Water replaces plastic water bottles with boxes that are 100% recyclable and made of 75% paper. Straus Family Creamery packages organic milk in reusable glass bottles made of at least 30% recycled glass. Customers rinse their bottles and return them to the store of purchase to receive a discount; while Straus then takes the bottles back to their facilities to reuse them an average of five times before recycling them. 

2. Plastic replacements

These are those synthetic packaging materials that are being mooted to replace plastic. Most often, they are plastics made from materials other than petrochemicals, but still retain plastic’s flexibility and versatility.

One exciting synthetic replacement is from an unlikely place. Hidden underneath a mushroom’s outer shell is a complex system of tubular cells called mycelia. These are fungi’s eyes and ears; they sense the surrounding environment, absorb nutrients as food, and help the fungus grow and survive. Ecovative Designs synthetic replacement for traditional Styrofoam, mycelium, is actually grown from these mushrooms and other fungal networks. 

Related Post: Biobased Plastics: How Biologically-Based Plastics Can Realistically Replace Petroleum-Based Plastics

Mushroom foam by Ecovative Designs. Credit: Ecovative Designs.

At the University of Bath, researchers have created a new type of plastic made from sugar and carbon dioxide as a renewable alternative to fossil-fuel based polymers; and a team of bioengineers at the University of Nottingham led by Dr Nicola Everitt are creating sustainable shopping bags made out of shrimp shells. The shells are collected, boiled in acid to make them less brittle, and stripped down to a plastic bag-like material. Just two pounds of shells can yield 15 biodegradable shopping bags. 

Now for this edition we aren’t necessary concerned with toiletry products but the fact that Mi Zhou has designed packaging made of soap, which after you use the contents, the packaging can be used as ordinary soap and which completely disintegrates and thereby leaving no plastic residue behind is incredible. And we thought to share it with you as well.

3. Organic and biodegradable

As billions of tons of plastic is being shoved down the planet’s throat, the argument for biodegradable packaging keeps rising. Bioplastics are ‘plastics’ made from organic sources such as vegetable oils, corn starch and cellulose unlike conventional plastics made from petroleum. 

Numi Tea uses biodegradable filter paper tea bags instead of nylon bags and its boxes are made of 85% recycled paper and soy-based inks. Alter Eco uses laminated stand-up pouches made of plant-based compostable materials for their quinoa products while Boos Food vegan super food bars use compostable wrappers.

Related Post: Demand for Compostable Packaging Rises As Businesses Find Ways to Satisfy Eco-Conscious Consumers

Edible water pods by Skipping Rocks Lab.

Celestial Tea’s bags are compostable, and their outer boxes are made with 100% recycled paperboard; while Love the Wild recently released a compostable tray for their line of ready-to-cook sustainable seafood meals. The company is expected to come out with a microwaveable version later this year. 

Holy Lama uses palm leaves from the areca palm to create the oyster-like cases for their handmade soaps; and following in their footsteps, the Berlin startup Arekapak is developing palm leaf packaging for food such as fresh fruit, vegetables and nuts.

4. Edible Packaging

What if after eating the food, you ate the packaging too? What if you didn’t have to throw away the packaging; what if you can eat your food/beverage wraps afterwards? Saltwater Brewery is the first to use edible six-pack rings designed by start-up E6PR, developed by reutilizing natural by-products of beer production (wheat and barley) to create edible ring holders that are 100% biodegradable and edible (for animals).

Corona becomes the first major beverage company to use edible six pack rings
Corona becomes the first major beverage company to use edible six pack rings.

Skipping Rocks Lab has developed an answer to the 38 billion plastic water bottles that are thrown away annually in the U.S. alone. Its ‘Ooho’ containers currently feature ‘Notpla‘ a biodegradable seaweed and calcium chloride that disappear naturally, and the package looks more like a silicone implant. You can burst the baggy open and consume guilt-free. Loliware‘s edible cups are made from agar or seaweed extract, and comes with different flavors like yogurt, cherry, and grapefruit.

Back in 2012, David Edwards launched WikiCells an edible packaging for foods and liquids. WikiCells mimic an eggshell and are made of charged polymers and food particles that can be filled with many things like orange juice, wine, or chocolate; and Incredible Foods sell these today as ‘Perfectly Free’ bites, a nondairy ice cream in refrigerated fruit bites.

5. Zero packaging

The concept of packaging or wrapping our foods goes a long way back but with the great environmental costs of single-use plastic, individuals and corporations across the globe have begun to increasingly experiment the possibilities of selling their products without any packaging.

The emergence of zero-packaging bulk food stores demonstrate how products can be offered without packaging. These businesses allow customers to bring and refill their own containers and in doing so they provide both environmental and economic benefits.

Related Post: Recycling Is Not Enough. Zero-Packaging Stores Show We Can Kick Our Plastic Addiction

No Tox Life and Fulfilld in the U.S., Eco Indian in India, Zero Waste Market in the UK, Source Bulk Foods in Australia, Monger Store & Deli in Germany and Unboxed Market in Canada are a few examples of these zero-packaging businesses.

Credit: Fulfilld via Facebook.

Prolonging the shelf life of fresh produce is one of the most popular arguments in favor of plastic usage and to tackle this challenge, Apeel created an edible coating spray that can be used in coating food produce. Korean scientists also detail the use of a rapid spray coating known as Nanocoating

These coatings are not only easily adaptable to several products; they also prolong the shelf life of fruits while providing them with additional nutrients in a timesaving technique that allows the mass coating of perishables. Given that this extends the shelf-life of the food items, it also eliminates the need for plastic packaging. 

That brings us to the end if this week’s edition of Future Designs. We hope it’s left you feeling optimistic and we’ll catch you next week to explore more innovative technology and designs in the world of sustainability. Don’t forget to share this post and spread the word of cool, sustainable ideas in the world of packaging!

Never miss our posts. Sign up for our weekly newsletter and receive our free sustainable lifestyle guide. 

Recommending reading:

Feature image of Jaden Smith via Just Water.

Enjoyed this post & want to show your gratitude? Then please support Eco Warrior Princess on Patreon!

More from Green Home