On a global scale, we need a wholesale rethink of how we package most of our purchased food. Food packaging forms a major component of the waste from most households. According to the EPA, we can attribute almost 45% of the waste in US landfills to food and packaging1. Many of those packages are food-related. Sustainable food packaging is no longer just an option for when necessary. It is an urgent need.
There are several things we can do to reduce the amount of food packaging that we bring into our homes. For example, we can:
But no matter how careful we are to reduce the amount of food packaging we bring into our homes, there is only so far most of us can go to reduce this form of waste. Moving towards a zero-waste society involves concerted effort, not only from individuals but from all sectors of society. Businesses, manufacturers, and political entities also have to play their roles.
Innovations in sustainable food packaging offer hope that things are changing for the better. We still have a long way to go. But there is an increasing number of businesses, manufacturers and authorities who are developing, using and encouraging the use of new and innovative materials. The aim is to replace the harmful single-use plastics upon which so much of our society relies.
Related: 15 Best Eco Friendly Packaging Options for sustainable shipping.
So much of the food we currently buy requires plastic for wrapping or packaging. But as so many of us are now acutely aware, plastic can be very useful but comes at a heavy cost to people and the planet.
Plastic requires vast quantities of finite and polluting fossil fuels to make. Research by the Pacific Institute, a global water organization, provides some context. In one year, it took approximately 17 million barrels of oil equivalent to produce plastic for bottled water consumed by Americans. To combat our climate crisis, reducing plastic use – particularly the use of single-use plastics – is paramount.
Of course, the problems with plastic do not end there. Plastic creation also wastes and pollutes freshwater. And all that plastic we make simply sticks around – creating a waste problem of epic proportions for future generations.
Environmental organizations often tout recycling plastic waste as a solution to the problem of plastic waste. By recycling plastics, we can reduce the amount of new plastic made, and move away from a throw-away society towards a circular model of production and consumption. But recycling alone is not enough. It can only ever be a partial and incomplete solution.
You also can’t recycle your shoe or sweater made from plastic bottles. And when it ends up in a landfill, it will break apart over time and will just sit there for centuries. So the next time you think it’s fine to buy recyclable plastic items, remember it’s a (usually) one-or-two time only process.
Many innovations in sustainable food packaging revolve around the idea of bioplastics.
Bio-plastic, or biodegradable plastic, is plastic that will break down over time, unlike traditional plastic polymers2. Such plastics are broken down through the agency of living organisms – usually bacteria. Research companies often tout bioplastics as a solution to the massive problem of plastic waste. Most plastics will not break down naturally in the environment – so they stick around and create a waste crisis that will last for generations to come.
Confusion arises, however, because there are two different types of biodegradable plastic:
Further confusion exists because many people confuse the terms 'biodegradable' and 'compostable'. A biodegradable material will break down, but only a compostable material will undergo a process that breaks the material down into compost, or hummus. While a biodegradable plastic will break down, inorganic compounds may remain. Fully compostable plastics, on the other hand, will break down without leaving inorganic residues in the environment.
The type of bioplastic we are talking about makes a big difference in deciding whether or not it is the most eco-friendly and sustainable choice.
Under the right conditions, micro-organisms can metabolize bioplastics entirely. They can reduce the plastics to just carbon dioxide and water, making them compostable as well as biodegradable. Starch-based bioplastics are an example of this. Such plastics, therefore, do not have a toll on the natural environment of traditional non-biodegradable plastic products.
Unfortunately, when synthetic polymers break down, they can leave inorganic compounds in the environment. True bio-plastics come with no such concerns. We can fully integrate compostable plastics with organic materials in waste streams, thereby significantly reducing the quantity of non-recoverable solid waste.
A true, green bio-plastic is one which comes from an entirely renewable agricultural source. Ideally, the crops grown as feedstock for its creation should be farming by-products. Or utilized land may be too degraded for sustainable food production. We should also consider the energy and water use of agriculture. Compostable bioplastics produced from truly sustainable and organic farming methods could be almost carbon neutral.
Manufacturers create synthetic plastics from non-renewable fossil fuels, which harms our natural environments and contributes to global warming.
It is worth noting that the best bio-plastics can be almost carbon neutral and will degrade completely in the right conditions. However, some other biodegradable plastics still release inorganic, damaging compounds into our environments. What is more, it is important to pay attention to the processes involved in creating a given biodegradable plastic, and the energy, land and water use that they involve before making your decision.
Even the best bio-plastics can have their downside. When sent to landfill, even the best bioplastics can release methane – a potent greenhouse gas. Choosing plastic-free options, or disposing of these natural bioplastics through small-scale home composting systems is generally the best option.
To better understand innovations in bioplastics, let’s take a look at some of the feedstocks that can be used to make these fully compostable polymers:
There are several plant materials that can provide the cellulosic material required to make bioplastics for global food system packaging. Already, a range of potato starch, cornstarch and other plants are created to replace synthetic plastics in food packaging.
However, such materials face criticism because making food packaging from food-grade products means taking food away from people and animals. With ever-increasing competition for land, there is criticism that using such materials can be unethical in the face of global food shortage. It may be unsustainable to use the land to make packaging rather than food long-term.
Research carried out by the International Bamboo and Rattan Organisation (INBAR) shows that if produced well, bamboo plastic alternatives can be 100% bio-based and completely biodegradable. Bamboo based materials could play a major role in the global bioplastics sector, producing around 2 million tonnes a year.
Bamboo plantations are an example of a second-generation feedstock for bioplastics. Planters make second-generation feedstocks from non-food crops (cellulosic feedstock). Other examples include wood, miscanthus, switchgrass, etc. Second-generation feedstocks also include waste materials from first-generation feedstocks – such as waste vegetable oil, for example.
Land use is key to the sustainability of second-generation feedstocks. We should grow materials for such bioplastics on land unsuited to food production. They should be materials that we can grow sustainably, and with as little land, water and other resources as possible.
Another innovation in bioplastic food packaging involves using algae/ seaweeds. We describe algae as third-generation feedstocks for bioplastics. They can have a higher yield than the materials described above and are more efficient. They do not need fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides or land, and yet, like the above, will biodegrade naturally.
Currently, bioplastics made from seaweeds or unicellular algae are more expensive to produce than other bioplastics. They are not as widely used and researchers need more information to investigate their application. In the future, algae-based bioplastics have the potential to revolutionize the bioplastics industry. They may play an important role in food packaging moving forwards.
Plant-based feedstocks are not the only potential bioplastic base materials we can use. Already, mushrooms and fungi are posing another interesting avenue for bio-polymer research. Mushroom-based materials are already being used as a polystyrene alternative, and fungi may also have a range of other applications in future.
Related Read: Colorful Mushrooms.
We also make bioplastics from animal-derived ingredients. Manufacturers can extract a naturally occurring polymer, chitin, from the shells of crustaceans. This could be a way to create food packaging material from food waste.
Biomimicry research - mimicking designs found in nature- will also likely play a key role in sustainable food packaging in future. As well as polymers made from cellulose plant materials and fungi, there may also be potential to create food packaging by copying materials made by animals in the natural world.
For example, Humble Bee is studying the potential to make use of a nesting material made by certain masked bees. This material is very similar to cellophane. Could mimicking this material disrupt the plastics industry?
Of course, bioplastics are not the only alternative materials for food packaging. Businesses and manufacturers are also increasingly becoming more inventive when it comes to using other sustainable materials to package food.
For example, cardboard may sometimes be perfectly satisfactory. Leaves, such as banana leaves, can simply be used to wrap vegetables, and so on. Innovations may also revolve around reducing the overall amount of packaging required.
Wholesale distribution, more localized supply chains and packaging-free stores will all play their part in forging a more sustainable future for our food industry and food packaging. It is by embracing a range of zero waste solutions that we will be able to overcome all the challenges we face.
We need to take a holistic approach, and look at the entirety of supply chains. We also need to be innovative and careful when it comes to all the packaging materials we choose. By looking backwards and forwards, we can find the perfect blend of simplicity and modern scientific invention.
We can choose the best elements of modernity while rejecting those things that won't allow us to survive and thrive long term. It is only by doing so that we can break our reliance on single-use plastics and forge a better world for us all.
|Reducing Wasted Food & Packaging: A Guide for Food Services and Restaurants. United States Environmental Protection Agency|
|Saharan, Baljeet & Sharma, Deepansh. (2012). Bioplastics-For Sustainable Development: A Review. International Journal of Microbial Resource Technology. 11. 11-23.|
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.