Ask any parent after Christmas morning and they’ll tell you our addiction to packaging is insane. From toys stuck inside scissor-breaking plastic to individually wrapped jelly beans (yes, these are a thing) to fruit and veggies vacuum sealed on a styrofoam tray and everything in between, we waste so many finite resources on packaging (and so much time opening it all). So what sustainable packaging alternatives can cure our addiction?
Our Packaging Problem
According to Recover USA, about 1/3 of all landfill materials in America are packaging. Around 65% of American trash is packaging and, despite most being recyclable, only a fraction ever is. In addition to the wastefulness of packaging, it is also costly. Packaging can even cost much more than the product it surrounds. By buying package-less items, you can save both resources and money.
Below is a breakdown of packaging waste in the European Union from 2016. The total volumes of each packaging material have remained relatively consistent over the past decade; however, they are on the rise since the recovery from the 2008 economic crisis. Despite increasing over time, the recycling rate of packaging materials on average is only around 70%.
With all this waste going to landfill, it’s a good thing some brilliant entrepreneurs and artists have come up with innovative new packaging materials with sustainability in mind. We will take a look at three different types of sustainable packaging in this post: mushroom, seaweed, and scoby. These materials are 100% natural, can be made in a matter of days or weeks, and will completely decompose back into natural waste materials.
Last spring, IKEA announced its switch to a mushroom-based packaging material for all of its products instead of styrofoam. This material, called EcoCradle, contains just two ingredients: agricultural waste and mycelium, the root structure from mushrooms. The mycelium acts as a binding agent to hold the agricultural waste together. This material can be molded into whatever shape is needed for the packaging.
Ecovative Design developed EcoCradle over a decade ago in 2007. The production process takes only 9 days start to finish. The process consists of creating a Growth Tray to create the proper shape, letting a mixture of hemp, flour, and mycelium grow for 4 days within the sealed Growth Tray, popping the form out of the tray and allowing another 2 days to grow, then finally letting it dry out for a few more days. This process costs a tiny fraction of the energy as plastic production and slashes carbon emissions. Below are some of the benefits of this material:
- Home compostable material
- 100% natural
- Moldable into any shape
- Flame and water resistant
- Grown in only 9 days
- Fully decomposes in 1-3 months
- Uses 98% less energy than styrofoam to manufacture
- Emits 90% less carbon than plastics
- Similar cost to styrofoam packaging
- Can grow without light or water
- Makes use of agricultural waste
- Lightweight, yet strong and durable
Seaweed and algae are vital organisms for our oceans. Not only are they an important food source, but algae can also clean up polluted waterways by filtering out nutrient-rich pollutants as food.
Magarita Telap, a Chilean designer, became frustrated with the amount of packaging in her daily life. So she decided to experiment and invent a natural algae-based packaging. The culinary world has used agar for generations. Boiling red algae creates this gel-like material. Telap adds water to the agar as a plasticizer and boils the mixture with dyes to create her packaging. She uses fruits and vegetables to naturally dye the material. She then pours the substance into a mold and leaves it to cool and become rigid.
This material can easily be heat sealed and is best suited for dry goods like pastas or grains. Telap can also adjust the ratio of water and agar to create different levels of rigidity required for specific product functions. This bioplastic will break down in just 2 to 3 months, depending on temperature and the material’s thickness.
You may have heard about the water pods handed out at the London Marathon last spring. Skipping Rocks Lab designed these edible pouches and dubbed them Oohos. The material itself is called Notpla, a combination of seaweed and plants that breaks down in just 4 to 6 weeks. With over 40,000 runners in the marathon, these little pods saved over 800 pounds of plastic.
Brown seaweed is the main ingredient of notpla and is a nearly renewable resource as it can grow over a meter per day. The seaweed requires no fresh water or fertilizers to grow, making it a more natural and sustainable process than that of other materials or crops. This sustainable packaging material can even be cheaper to produce than the plastic counterpart it is trying to replace.
In addition to the drink pouches, Skipping Rocks Lab uses Notpla to create sauce and dressing packets as well as a takeaway tray liner that is water and grease resistant. They are currently also working on heat-sealable films and nets made from Notpla.
Evoware/Evo & Co
A similar product to Margarita’s bioplastic is the seaweed-based packaging from Evoware (edit: now Evo & Co). The material is used to create a variety of commercially available products including food wraps, coffee and dry seasoning sachets, and soap and toiletry packaging. Evoware not only works to reduce the plastic waste and pollution problems our world is facing, but the company also addresses farmer wellbeing and ensures farmers are paid fairly.
This seaweed-based packaging is tasteless and odorless. Their food wraps and sachets are edible, and all of the products will dissolve in warm water, making them a truly zero waste product. Below is a quick summary of benefits of this material.
- Some products are edible and nutritious, containing fiber, vitamins, and minerals
- Dissolves in warm water and 100% biodegradable
- Acts as a natural plant fertilizer
- 2 year shelf life without preservatives
- Halal certified, safe to eat, and produced in compliance with HACCP standards
- Customizable taste and color
- Printable material to add brand logos, images, etc.
- Heat sealable
What’s scoby? Probably not as appetizing as a Scooby Snack but great for the environment! Scoby is actually an acronym for Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeast. By fermenting scoby with food and/or agricultural waste, the bacteria and yeast create layers of gel-like microbial cellulose. This cellulose either dries out into sheets or gets molded into different shapes (tray, bowl, plate, etc.).
Italian designer Emma Sicher’s “From Peel to Peel” project is “an experimental approach for packaging”. Scoby mixes with water, an acetic compound, sugar, and organic material for a period of 2 to 4 weeks in a warm environment to create the microbial cellulose used for packaging.
Similar to Margarita Talep, Sicher uses different fruits and vegetables to naturally dye her material. She can dye the cellulose either wet or dry using various pureed food scraps to provide the desired color.
Sicher wanted to follow a cradle to cradle approach in her sustainable packaging project so that food can be eaten then used to create the packaging for new food. After use as packaging, consumers can compost the cellulose to create a fertilizer to help grow more food.
She has created tableware, sachets, and bags with her material, which can be printed on for branding purposes. The can package both dry goods and food items that will be consumed quickly after wrapping, such as street foods. Sicher hopes to see a future with a more circular approach to packaging on a global scale.
Polish designer Roza Janusz is behind this sustainable packaging company that produces scoby packaging much in the same way as Emma Sicher. MakeGrowLab works with customers to create custom packaging solutions. The material takes just two weeks to produce and is appropriate for dry or semi-dry goods.
This packaging material requires no sunlight to grow and utilizes agricultural waste as the food for bacteria and yeast. Not only does it use a byproduct in production, but this material is also…
- Home compostable
- An oxygen and microbial barrier
- Insoluble in water
- Printable to add brand logos, images, etc.
There is a way to reduce our packaging waste beyond all-naked products. By thinking outside the box and using the natural world around us, we can move toward a more sustainable future that does not compromise convenience.
These types of sustainable packaging materials are produced quickly using limited resources and return to the earth in a matter of weeks to months, unless you eat it yourself!
More concerned with reducing your packaging waste on an individual scale? Check out my post on How to Reduce Packaging Waste.