Eating Our Way to Eco-friendly

From leaves to clay pots to the modern-day cardboard and plastic, food packaging has undergone quite a few changes over the years. While the disposable packaging we use today makes transporting and accessing food simple and sanitary, it does have a drawback: the massive amounts of waste produced every year. According to the EPA, one-third of municipal solid waste in the U.S. is packaging, and two-thirds of that is food packaging. Going by the available 2010 data, that breaks down to roughly 1 pound per person per day of food packaging waste alone. The rate of packaging being sent to landfills has many people looking for ways to reduce that number, both in their personal lives and on a larger scale.

Biodegradable Packaging

The first solution that most people think of when pondering how to reduce waste is recycling. While this solution has been picking up steam in the food packaging market, with much of the paper and cardboard products losing their glossy finishes that many recycling plants can’t process, the recycling industry has its own problems that are making recycling these products less and less effective. Additionally, a majority of food packaging is made of plastic films that cannot be recycled.

As more companies have taken note that consumers are becoming aware of the amount and types of waste they generate, many have made a point of switching to more eco-friendly packaging. It’s not at all unusual to see food packages on grocery store shelves or even containers from your local fast food joint that claim to be “biodegradable” or “compostable,” but what do those terms mean in the end? Often, not much.

A product billed as biodegradable will, under certain conditions, break down much faster than a typical plastic. When most plastics can take thousands of years to break down completely, that means a ‘biodegradable’ plastic can be intended to break down in a decade or more. And that’s usually only in a compost pile – if that plastic ends up in the landfill or, as so much does, in the ocean, it may last just as long as its conventional counterpart.

To reduce the limitations of such biodegradable products, some manufacturers have put more focus on making packaging out of natural products. For example, Saltwater Brewery in Delray Beach, Fla., developed six pack rings using a byproduct of the brewing process that can be eaten by marine animals. Meanwhile, Danone and Nestlé are developing water bottles made of cardboard and sawdust, and researchers have developed a plastic-like material made of shrimp shells and silk.

Edible Wrappers

For scientists who were frustrated by the recycling conundrum, the logical next step was to make packaging that wouldn’t end up in the waste stream at all. For some, this means plastic that dissolves in water, while others are focusing on edible packaging. Some of the options in development are:

  • • Loliware produces cups made out of an edible bioplastic. The cups are available in multiple flavors, including tart cherry, yuzu citrus, matcha green tea, and vanilla bean, and the company claims that any uneaten portion can be composted into soil in 60 days.
  • • Bakey’s Edible Cutlery produces spoons that are made of a kind of dry dough that bakes into a crisp spoon. The spoon is durable enough that it can be used to stir hot drinks or soups, and is available in sweet and savory flavors. Right now the company only sells its products in India, but may begin serving the international market.
  • • Skipping Rocks Lab has developed Ooho, an edible “bubble” that can contain water or any other liquid. The bubble is made from substances derived from plants and seaweed, and the company claims it can be made for cheaper than plastic. Seed funding was recently completed, so it may be possible to find these in stores and restaurants in the next few years.
  • • Kuraray has developed Vivos® Films, a product similar to that used for laundry pods that can encase dry or oily products and dissolves when it becomes wet. These are being marketed to restaurants and manufacturers to encourage consistency, as well as for use in instant food and beverage applications.
  • • Most recently, the USDA has developed a plastic-like film out of casein, a protein found in milk, and citrus pectin. The film is 250 times more effective at blocking oxygen than plastic film, and when dissolved can add protein to food products. However, the film could cause an adverse reactions in those with lactose intolerance or dairy allergies, so the developers are currently proposing it only be used to wrap products that either already contain dairy or are commonly used with dairy products, like cereal. As milk consumption has declined in the U.S. in recent years, this application could provide a much-needed boon to the dairy market.
Courtney Barkley
Courtney Barkley

Courtney Barkley has lived in nearly as many southeastern states as most Americans have probably visited, settling in East Tennessee in early 2013. She and her husband Thomas were married during ShadoCon 2012 – an anime, gaming, and comics convention – in a ceremony that featured a reading about dinosaurs in love from a friend dressed as Doctor Who. She spends her free time chasing her brilliant and imaginative son Nathan, hanging out with friends, binge-watching shows, playing video games, and keeping up with the characters of the Marvel Universe. And, any chance she gets, she sneaks off to Florida to visit friends and the happiest place on earth – Disney World.

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