In our previous blog of this series, we learned that plastic packaging, though useful for food preservation, are harmful to the environment for their low recyclability rates; consumers are misinformed about effective recycling practices, biodegradable materials aren’t as compostable as assumed, and many plastics are not easily sortable. The end result? Less plastics that can be reused, and more plastics that are discarded in landfills.
If plastics are harmful, what’s the solution? Particularly, what is the solution for the food and beverage (F&B) industry – which needs packaging to safely preserve and maintain the quality of food? In other words, more is at stake when changes are made to current packaging practices because the safety aspect cannot be compromised.
Aside from information regarding the tried and true glass and aluminum materials, this second blog of the series offers different alternatives to plastics that are still safe, but more exciting: edible packaging.
Currently, without the necessity of significant innovations, glass and aluminum are better packaging alternatives to plastic.
On top of being 100% recyclable and not susceptible to degradation of quality once recycled, glass also has very high recyclability rates. In the EU, over 70% of glass that is produced is recycled, with some countries like Belgium, Slovenia, and Sweden each having 90% or more recycle rates.
Additionally, in the US, glass is the only packaging material that has been designated as fully safe according to the FDA. Unlike plastic which is made from numerous fibers and potentially harmful materials, glass is made entirely from natural sources such as sand, soda ash, etc. This means that consumers have no reason to stress about ingesting materials that may harm the body with glass jars and bottles.
Much like glass, aluminum is also 100% recyclable and can also be reused many times without experiencing any loss of purity or quality. It is also cheaper to produce aluminum cans from recycled aluminum than new material which means that it is cost effective.
Aluminum is an especially important material for the food industry because it is the only material which can withstand all food storage and cooking conditions. Aluminum cans can be placed in freezers, aluminum pans can be used for oven baking, and aluminum sheets can be placed on grills – all without compromises to the properties of the material. In other words, it can be very useful for F&B producers who create products that must undergo different conditions for consumption.
Given the qualities of these materials, transitioning packages from plastic to glass/aluminum could be a step in the right direction. However, given how their properties are not easily affected by external conditions, these materials take even longer to decompose than plastic if they do end up in landfills.
Consequently, innovations are still necessary for F&B packaging.
An exciting solution? Edible packaging.
Instead, companies and scientists are coming up with new options for packaging that need to neither recycle nor biodegrade. Instead, this packaging can be eaten. Currently, many sustainably-driven startups are focusing on such innovations:
- NOTPLA: A sustainable packaging startup company designed Ooho, a package for beverages and sauces that is made from seaweed and plants. Once the seal is broken on the package and the product is poured out, the consumer can eat the package, which resembles a gelatin bubble of sorts. The material can also be used as films to cover dried goods like nuts, or edible linings for takeaway containers.
- Twiice: A New Zealand based company, Twiice has designed edible coffee and dessert cups that are vanilla flavored and resemble a wafer of sorts. Local coffeeshops have already added them to their stock, but even on a national level, the country’s main airline has also partnered with Twiice to replace the usual disposable cups on board with the edible cups.
- Ooble: Similar to Twiice’s product but tackling an entirely different problem, Ooble Innovations has created an edible straw made from cereal flours and other plant material. Ooble saw that plastic straws were very damaging to the environment, and paper straws became soggy so quickly, so the startup found an edible solution – these come in various flavors and can be eaten once the drink is finished.
- Banana leaves: Currently, Thailand is a leader in terms of wrapping produce in durable banana leaves instead of cellophane; the supermarket chain Rimping heads the transition. In other countries, scientists have begun testing how they can enhance the biological structure of banana leaves to be able to preserve produce longer. These banana leaves could be reused in consumer cooking, or will break down naturally as leaves do.
- Evoware is another company using seaweed as the basis for their innovative packaging. Based in Indonesia, they have created ramen seasoning packets that dissolve when the hot broth is poured over, and packages for Bruxel Waffle, pictured below.
While edible packaging is still in a “pilot” stage of sorts, there is a hopeful future towards more widespread integration for the F&B industry. Currently, a concern for some manufacturers is that it can be costly to produce this edible material – though some of these costs are a result of small production teams and high quality ingredient maintenance. The science can be expensive especially in a startup environment.
However, once awareness for these innovations grows and there is more financial support, F&B producers can anticipate seeing these packages in big brands. The aviation industry, for example, has already latched on to the idea, with other brands expected to follow.
The success of edible packages may also depend on their “wow” factor, which is sure to appeal to consumer-driven intrigue and environmental interests.