290 million tons of plastic waste are now being produced every year, compared with 1.5 million tons in the 1950s. If nothing is done to change our current trajectory, given the growth rate of developing nations like China, these figures are expected to increase by an annual 3.7%, according to PlasticsEurope.
This is a major issue that needs to be tackled urgently by all parties from industrial to governments and consumers.
Aside from the ongoing increase in recycling, all different types of companies, researchers and inventors have started looking for an alternative to traditional plastic packaging that is made from renewable sources or biodegradable.
And you can eat it!
A breakthrough example of emerging natural packaging options is Ooho. This is the name given to an edible bubble of water invented by London start-up Skipping Rocks Lab. Here, liquid is contained not by a bottle or plastic, but by a completely biodegradable, even edible, membrane. Inspired by molecular gastronomy, its creators used the chemical process of spherification. In concrete terms, it requires sodium alginate, a texturizing agent and calcium. In the presence of the second, the first turns to gel. And the water bubble can even withstand heavy rinsing. The only drawback is that it can only hold up to a maximum of 5 cl (1.7 fl oz) of liquid. However, during marathon and cycling races, they could be grabbed by athletes, who currently quench their thirst from plastic cups and bottles that they then drop on the ground.
The trend in edible packaging has been confirmed by WikiFoods technology, developed by Quantum Designs in partnership with Stonyfield since 2013. Like the skin of a grape, their packaging made of natural ingredients (particularly seaweed) protects and preserves food, and can also be eaten, itself. In Boston, WikiPearls are already available for purchase. Ice cream, yogurt, cheese, soup and compote can be bought in the form of these pearls. Not only does this product offer a new way to package food, but it is also a taste experience, in and of itself.
Another initiative and another edible alternative to plastic come from the Indian company Bakey’s. At a time when 40 billion plastic utensils are used each year in the United States alone, this company has developed edible, biodegradable cutlery. Made from three types of flour (rice, wheat and sorghum), its spoons can hold even hot liquids, thanks to the solidity provided by the properties of sorghum. “Our spoons are delicious, but if they are not consumed, they are able to degrade in any outside environment, as they do not have specific requirements for degradation. In a standard environment where the spoons are exposed to nature, they will degrade within 10 days or be eaten by other animals,” boasted Bakey’s in its crowdfunding campaign. Not to mention the fact that the energy needed to produce a plastic spoon is enough to make 100 edible ones. All of these arguments give this company the hope that it will soon be able to market knives, forks, plates and cups that can be consumed without moderation… or just about.
Plants, food for inspiration
In this race to package consumer goods differently, nature is by no means stingy when it comes to very promising possibilities. The solution studied by the Japanese team at AMAM is one such example. Their project, Agar Plasticity, involves perfecting a plastic that uses agar, a gelatinous substance derived from red algae that is already used in cooking. This eco-plastic requires less energy and zero polymers (molecules that are harmful to both the environment and human health). All this Asian team now needs is the funds to be able to test their production on a larger scale.
Another nature-inspired innovation, US-based Ecovative’s mushroom packaging, is already winning industrialists over. After computer manufacturer Dell, Ikea is now apparently considering using this mushroom-based material to protect its furniture. Because it is biodegradable and less costly, it looks like it could be the perfect replacement for polystyrene. Made of plant refuse, water and mycelium, it decomposes after a few weeks, for example when mixed in with the soil of a vegetable garden.
Welcome to the bioeconomy
This community, dedicated to the search for practical, affordable alternatives to plastic, is expanding day by day. And major international firms are, of course, involved in this process. For example, the Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance (BFA) was formed by some of the world’s leading consumer brand companies as a precompetitive, multi-stakeholder forum focused on increasing awareness around the environmental and social performance of potential feedstock sources for bio-based plastics. Founding members of the BFA include: The Coca-Cola Company, Danone, Ford Motor Company, Nestle, Nike, Inc., P&G and Unilever.
Such initiatives are helping to develop a bioeconomy that is both competitive and environmentally responsible. In short, a sustainable economy.
Photo ©Ooho! by Skipping Rocks Lab