Mushrooms, Palm Leaves & Seaweed Could Be The Plastic Of The Future
This summer, sitting in the audience of a panel on sustainable food, I had spent upward of an hour learning about a full roster of meals that could feed the future—everything from 3D-printed chocolate to lettuce grown in shipping containers—when one woman asked the only question of the night that stumped the speakers: "All this is great—but will it all come packaged in single-use plastic?" The answer? Likely yes.
These days, making a sustainable product is in some ways easier than finding a sustainable way to get it to people.
What's the problem with plastic packaging?
Plastic has long been the strong, flexible material we turn to for most packaging needs—but it comes with plenty of downsides. The fact that it takes hundreds—if not thousands—of years to fully decompose in the environment is a major one.
Since the world started using plastic on a large scale around World War II, only 9% of it has been recycled. The other 91% is still floating in our oceans, where 9 million tons of plastic head every year to join the other 5 trillion plastic pieces already swimming around. Or it has settled on our beaches, where 9 out of 10 of the most-found types of litter are made of plastic. Or it has broken down into tiny microplastic particles, joined the water cycle, and permeated the air we breathe. When I spoke with Bethanie Carney Almroth, Ph.D., who researches the effect of microplastics on marine environments, she broke the news that there is literally no clean environment left on the whole planet, thanks to our plastic addiction.
Are bioplastics any better?
As our understanding of plastic's environmental legacy deepens, the packaging industry is racing to find alternatives. Bioplastic is one of the most common.
Traditional plastic is made by breaking down fossil fuels and processing them into long polymer chains. Bioplastics are created using a similar process, but with raw materials like corn and sugar cane instead of coal and crude oil. You've probably seen coffee cups or to-go containers made from bioplastics before—the ones I come across often have a thin green stripe down the middle. The idea is that they're better for the planet because they reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and break down in the environment quicker than traditional plastic.
But there is some controversy over how much better bioplastic packaging really is for the planet. For starters, you still need a ton of land to grow enough raw materials like corn and sugar cane to make it—especially on the massive scale that's required for all of our single-use needs. There's also concern over whether these plastic alternatives will mess with soil health when they biodegrade...and that's if they biodegrade at all. Since there's no international standard for how quickly materials break down in the environment in order to be considered "biodegradable," packaging that takes hundreds of years to disappear could still qualify.
"Compostable" is another word you'll find on some bioplastics these days, but again, there's no universal definition for this. Lots of packaging material that's labeled compostable is too strong to break down in your backyard compost heap and needs to be sent to the high heat and humidity of an industrial compost facility. If you don't have access to one of those, you're better off throwing the packaging in the trash since tossing it in the blue bin could strain an already overworked recycled system.
Up-and-coming packaging solutions that show a lot of promise.
It's safe to say that we're in the midst of a race to find more earth-friendly packaging options. Here are three exciting alternatives to watch:
Then-23-year-old Indonesia native David Christian won the 2017 Circular Design Challenge for his edible, seaweed-based food packaging.
Why seaweed? It's quick to grow and can be cultivated all over the world. "Unlike plastic, seaweed is a renewable source," explains Sizigia Pikhansa, a marketing and communications manager for Christian's company, Evoware. "[It] produces O2, and since seaweed grows in the ocean, we don't need land, biocides, fresh water, or artificial fertilizers."
Plus, it's flexible enough to take on many forms—and nutritious to boot. If you don't want to have your packaging and eat it too, Evoware's material should also break down in backyard compost within 30 days.
Ello Jello—a single-use, edible cup that comes in four flavors—is the first consumer-facing product by Evoware. The company is now busy working on a range of other plastic alternatives for the food, beauty, and medical industries.
Arekapak: Palm Leaf
Arekapak's food packaging containers are made from palm leaves, an underused byproduct of the palm oil industry. "There are billions of leaves available every year, which are often burned by the farmers as agro-waste," co-founder Alexandra Matthies tells me.
Matthies has found a relatively low-energy way to convert the leaves into airtight, water-resistant containers that she envisions being used across the catering and grocery sectors as an alternative to plastic shells that hold fruits and veggies. Her first pilot customer, Refueat, is a Syrian street food catering business in Berlin.
The palm leaf packaging is durable, reusable, oven- and microwave-proof, and completely backyard compostable within 90 days. The company is still toying with the containers' design to make it suitable for products with a longer shelf life. While Matthies acknowledges that "one material alone can't satisfy all" of our packaging needs, she hopes that hers can make a dent in them.
In Ecovative's packaging, mycelium—the fungal building block of mushrooms—acts as a natural cement of sorts, slipping in between particles to form one solid material. Ecovative combines their mycelium with agricultural waste from the hemp industry and then watches as it becomes a styrofoam-like substance over the course of a few days. That means that small-batch packages are literally grown to order and technically edible. (Though we don't recommend putting 'em on your dinner plate, we do hear they're gluten-free.)
"We're looking at all the technology that is possible with this magical product from nature," Lacey Davidson, a brand manager at Ecovative, tells mbg. "Simply by letting mycelium do what it would naturally, packaging of various geometries can be produced."
The packaging is 100% home compostable within 30 to 45 days, meaning you can literally just add it to your backyard compost pile. If you don't have one of those, toss it in the trash (not the recycling bin) and it will break down in landfill quickly too, according to Davidson.
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