Edible Packaging: More Than Just the Potato Cup
According to Earthday.org, more than 141 million metric tons of the world’s plastic thrown out in 2015 was packaging material. Globally, takeout orders account for around 269,000 U.S. tons of plastic waste. The world also uses 500 billion plastic cups, more than half a billion plastic straws are used every day, and about one trillion single-use plastic bags every year.
Efforts to rethink packaging and reduce the globe’s dependency on single-use plastic is a growing trend. Eco-friendly packaging has opened the doors to innovation, and now companies all over the world are answering the call with packaging made of food-derived products, eliminating plastic from the formula.
Typically called eco-packaging, these new materials are environmentally beneficial, sustainable, and designed to zero out waste. Some eco-friendly packaging is edible, made from organic resources, and targeted for human consumption; other materials are designed to be safe for wildlife to eat. For example, we may not think about eating mushroom-derived containers or beer-can rings, but if they end up in ocean waters or other environments, they can be safely eaten by wildlife, or composted into our soils.
Eco packaging comes in a variety of forms:
- Plastic straws that are being replaced with items made from starch, corn, or seaweed that you can eat or will decompose within 24 hours.
- Bio-derived coatings on fruits and vegetables to keep produce fresher for longer.
- Biodegradable or edible takeout packaging that can be composted or eaten.
- Biodegradable or edible to-go cups made from starch-based material.
- Edible food wrappers – flavorless starch-based containers and wrappers for catering and single-use servings that do not interfere with the actual product’s flavor.
- Pods or packets created from seaweed gel to replace water bottles and single-use condiment packages.
- Pre-formed containers composed from mushrooms that are easily composted.
- Plant-based biodegradable six-pack rings that wildlife can eat.
- Biodegradable bags made from cassava flour can be composted at home.
- Plant-based packing peanuts that can be safely eaten by wildlife or composted.
- Plant-based or starch-based utensils that can be enjoyably eaten or composted.
Benefits of Edible Packaging
There are many advantages to switching over to edible food packaging. More consumers are becoming environmentally conscious about the purchases they make and the waste they produce. Edible packaging eliminates the typical waste cycle and does not require any recycling. Since most edible packaging can be eaten or composted, it is very biodegradable, will not fill up landfills or recycling centers, or break down into microplastics in our soil.
In addition, this type of packaging is utilized in multiple ways. For example, edible packaging is used most commonly for refrigerated items and single-serve products. This range is expanding to include hot liquid containers, where the packaging will dissolve after exposed to heat. And, instead of using sugar coatings to preserve certain foods, manufacturers can use milk casein to keep it from spoiling or becoming stale.
A top design challenge for food processors is water solubility, which is both an advantage and a disadvantage. If the packaging is too water-soluble, it will degrade faster in humid conditions, or with cold and condensation, possibly even causing mold. Being food-based, some packaging may still require outer packaging to protect it from contaminants and keep it safe for consumption.
Another challenge for food-based packaging is food allergies of consumers. Milk-based and even gluten-based packaging adds concern for those with specific sensitivities.
Speaking at the 246th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society, Sara Risch, Ph.D., principal in the consulting firm Science by Design, said that new packaging materials must meet the criteria for being sustainable without sacrificing the security, freshness, and visibility of the food inside.
“We face a huge challenge in developing new packaging materials that protect food all through the supply chain while being recyclable, compostable, produced with renewable energy, or even edible,” Risch explained. Nature has set the standard, she pointed out—for example, apples, oranges, bananas, and nuts all come in packaging that is edible or compostable.
Allied Market Research published a report stating edible packaging manufacturing costs are high because they need to meet sanitary requirements set forth by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Edibles are susceptible to germs and other hazardous particles, especially during transportation, and must be protected. Many edible films are made from water-soluble polymers and contain general-purpose additives. “If any ingredients used in edible polymers are prone to allergy, then that should be clearly defined on the label,” states Allied Market Research.
Rennalya Zahra, communications director for Avani Eco, a manufacturer of eco products, comments that the manufacturing process and equipment for their cassava bags “is almost the same [as regular plastic bag manufacturing], but there are adjustments such as temperature, as we are dealing with organic materials.” “The process also produces less carbon footprint,” she continues. The challenge is to maintain the consistency of the bags.”
Manufacturers must determine how to compete against more affordable and durable plastic packaging. Another challenge is how to educate people with the right information. “There are so many eco-friendly bags, but are all the bags out there really biodegradable? Do they still contain any plastic materials? The answer for some of them is yes,” says Zahra. For example, Avani’s bio-cassava bags (cassava is a starchy gourd) are biodegradable, can be home-composted, and do not contain any plastic materials.
COVID-19 is on everyone’s mind today, but even before this pandemic, one of the biggest challenges for reusable bags, compared with single-use plastic bags, was the easy transport of viruses and bacteria after continual use. In 2011, researchers at the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University examined a sample of reusable bags from shoppers and found “large numbers of bacteria,” including dangerous fecal bacteria and salmonella. Bacteria was found in 99% of the reusable bags, while no bacteria or viruses were found in a sample of disposable plastic bags and new reusable bags.
The COVID-19 virus is just one of many pathogens that shoppers can spread with reusable bags unless they wash them regularly, which few people bother to do. According to a study published by The Journal of Hospital Infection, “human coronaviruses can remain infectious on inanimate surfaces for up to nine days,” and they expect that the new COVID-19 has the same effect.
Eco-friendly bags do not contain any plastic materials that would otherwise decompose into microplastics that end up in the ground and our food. Recent studies have discovered microplastics in fish, birds, plants, and even humans.
While the terms “reduce,” “reuse,” and “recycle” need more incorporation into all our minds, packaging manufacturers like Avani Eco strive to “help fill this gap of unavoided plastic packaging by providing more eco-friendly materials,” says Zahra. “We encourage consumers and the food industry that, although there are many alternatives out there, what is most important is to be responsible in whatever you do. These little acts of responsibility are what we should have as our core driving value to live a more sustainable lifestyle.”