Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Packaging designed to disappear

Edible packaging – the future of sustainability

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In a world grappling with the environmental consequences of plastic pollution, innovative solutions are urgently needed to reduce waste and promote sustainability. One such solution that has been gaining traction in recent years is edible packaging. This remarkable concept aims to revolutionize the way we package and consume food and beverages while minimizing the environmental footprint left behind by traditional packaging materials.

In 2019, as fatigued runners reached the 23-mile mark of the London Marathon, they were greeted by volunteers donning blue plastic gloves. These volunteers handed out soft, lime-sized bubbles that runners could simply pop into their mouths. These edible drink pods held a refreshing sip of a sports drink, serving as an eco-friendly alternative to the thousands of disposable cups that runners usually discard, causing drainage issues and necessitating a substantial post-marathon cleanup effort.

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Ooho by Notpla offers a convenient solution for on-the-go hydration during events. By replacing single-use plastic cups and bottles with Ooho, sporting events can eliminate the need for litter cleanup on the streets. Additionally, it presents an opportunity to engage participants in sustainability objectives.

Ooho, the liquid-filled capsules enclosed in a waterproof film made from seaweed, offers versatile disposal options. It can either be consumed or disposed of in a home compost, where it will biodegrade within a few weeks, much like a fruit peel, leaving behind no harmful environmental impact, according to its maker, London-based start-up Notpla. This means that if players choose to spit out the film, it will biodegrade in 4 to 6 weeks without leaving any discernible trace.

Ooho comes in two distinctive formats – Pop & Go, with a 23 ml capacity, and Nip & Sip, with a larger 70 ml capacity. The Pop & Go format is intended to be consumed whole, much like a cherry tomato. It bursts in your mouth, delivering a delightful burst of flavor. On the other hand, the Nip & Sip format is ideal for sporting events, typically containing water or sports drinks. It offers a convenient way to access hydration – simply nip the corner and sip the content, leaving the membrane to biodegrade naturally.

In the drive for sustainable packaging solutions, edible films and coatings have emerged as a promising innovation. These edible layers, composed of ingredients like starches, proteins (e.g., gelatin), and polysaccharides (e.g., alginate), are designed to envelop food items. They serve a dual purpose by extending the shelf life of perishable products and reducing the dependence on traditional plastic packaging, thereby addressing food waste and environmental concerns.

Alginate-based packaging, derived from brown algae, is gaining ground for its biodegradability and versatility in encapsulating various food forms. Seaweed-based packaging is also on the rise as a sustainable alternative, harnessing the renewable nature of seaweed for creating films, wraps, and containers. Fruit and vegetable-based options not only offer eco-friendly packaging but also enable the infusion of flavors and nutrients for an enhanced eating experience. Edible cutlery further contributes to sustainability by replacing disposable plastic utensils and promoting post-meal consumption, while biodegradable materials round out the picture. Several startups and food companies are already introducing these innovative packaging solutions, marking a tangible shift towards reducing plastic waste and fostering environmentally responsible practices.

Loliware, a company headquartered in New York, has innovatively transformed alginate sourced from seaweed and agar obtained from red algae into flavored straws. These unique straws, in contrast to conventional paper straws that quickly become soggy when wet, maintain their plastic-like durability for a full 24 hours. Remarkably, they are also edible if you choose to consume them, and they will naturally biodegrade in the environment within a span of just two months, as confirmed by the company.

Evoware, an Indonesian company, has successfully experimented with its edible seaweed-based packaging, using it as a burger wrapper. They have now begun selling it in limited quantities for instant noodle seasoning sachets and coffee pouches. Beyond its positive environmental impact in reducing plastic usage, a significant concern given Indonesia’s status as the second-largest contributor to ocean plastic waste, Evoware also aims to support local seaweed farmers by creating a new source of income.

Experts in both research and the food industry unanimously concur that edible packaging will necessitate an outer layer, similar to how ice cream cones are enclosed in paper and packaged within a box. These external materials can also be crafted from compostable or sustainable resources. However, it’s essential to acknowledge that plastic packaging is likely to remain prevalent for the foreseeable future. Bruce Welt, a chemical engineer and food-packaging researcher at the University of Florida, highlights that packaging serves the critical purpose of safeguarding food, emphasizing that the primary function is to use packaging to protect food, rather than relying on food to protect itself – we don’t use food to protect food.

The sustainability of edible packaging is not without its complexities. While it represents a more eco-friendly alternative to plastic, it’s crucial to assess the materials and natural resources used in its production, as emphasized by Melina Romero, trend insights manager at CCD Innovation, a strategic consulting agency in the food and beverage industry. It is essential that these materials do not compete with food sources or impose a significant environmental burden in their production processes. Balancing sustainability with the overall impact on the environment is a key consideration when evaluating the feasibility of edible packaging.

The innovators behind edible packaging acknowledge the formidable qualities of plastic that are difficult to replicate. Their aim is not to entirely supplant plastic but rather to significantly reduce its consumption. In our contemporary society, where plastic packaging dominates, there are ample opportunities for positive change and innovation.

Mahan Hazarika
Mahan Hazarika
Mahan Hazarika has served as the Editor of The Packman since 2017, demonstrating an impressive decade-long expertise in the field of writing about the printing and packaging industry. In his leisure time, he indulges in his passions for music, travel, and watching movies.

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