Packaging is an indispensable part of food: In addition to protecting the product during manufacture, storage, transport and sale, packaging often fulfills hygiene requirements and extends the product’s shelf life. Additionally, information about the product or its handling as well as the list of ingredients are also part of the packaging. Once the product has been used, the packaging is being disposed of, making up the bulk of household waste. In 2017, Germany generated more than 18 million tons of packaging waste, with an uprising trend. With plastic still dominating the packaging industry, sustainable and resource-saving materials, which enable environmentally friendly disposal or recycling emerge in the public eye. Not only consumers are interested in sustainable packaging, legislation also prescribes it, for example by banning various single-use plastic items in the retail and food sector. So, how can food and drinks be packaged in an environmentally friendly and ecological way while still paying attention to the functionality of the packaging?
With around 60 %, the packaging industry is the main producer of household plastic waste in Germany (Süddeutsche Zeitung). While consumers use a plastic bag for an average of 25 minutes, it takes several centuries for this packaging to completely disintegrate (wwf). With the plastic waste problem globally arising and the food industry having an enormous environmental impact, it seems inevitable to reconsider food-packaging materials and to make them as sustainable as possible to contribute to a future-oriented concept. Materials with high recyclability, recycled or degradable materials as well as reusable packaging serve as excellent sustainable alternatives.
The most common sustainable alternative to plastic might be the renewable and CO2-neutral raw material wood. Wood is biodegradable, paper or cardboard can be easily recycled and reintroduced into the product cycle. Fast growing bamboo for example, grows without artificial irrigation, does not require pesticides and is biodegradable after its use. From wooden cutlery to burger boxes made of cardboard, wood from sustainable forestry or as a waste from wood processing can be a great alternative.
Another paper-like material is grass paper: Classic wood fibers and grass fibers are mixed and processed into boxes, stuffing paper or wrapping paper. Grass as a rapidly growing raw material, consumes little water and energy, is recyclable and biodegradable.
Cocoa paper is made from the shells of the cocoa beans, which are a waste product of the roasting of the beans in the production of, for example, chocolate. Like grass paper, the fibers can be added to paper fibers, resulting in an ideal food packaging as it can withstand both extremely hot and cold temperatures.
Corn starch and other starchy plants such as potatoes, tapioca and wheat, processed into plastic granules and foamed into packaging chips are another renewable and natural raw material that is biodegradable. However, the cultivation of corn is often not organic and based on large monocultures.
Another sustainable packaging material is bagasse: fibrous residues that are formed when extracting sugar from sugar canes. The fibers are rich in cellulose and are suitable, among other things, for the production of paper bags and cardboard as well as trays for transporting take-away food; it is compostable, robust, heat-resistant and can be used like Styrofoam.
A 100 % natural material for insulation is hemp. The plant removes more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than is released from cultivation to transport to the processing plant. It grows very quickly, hardly needs any fertilizers or pesticides and improves the fertility of the soil. Once processed, it can be almost completely recycled. It is shock absorbing and breathable, insulating with a similarly low thermal conductivity as Styrofoam (RAUSCH).
Other interesting alternatives are plant-based materials such as tree leaves or algae. The Indonesian company Evoware produces thin films based on algae, which are found in abundance in Indonesia. The resulting packaging is odor- free, tasteless and dissolves in hot water; the material does not contain any preservatives and has a shelf life of two years.
The British start-up Skipping Rocks Labs has also specialized in algae for its products: a transparent, edible ball filled with water, cocktails, sauces or spices. The membrane shell of the balls consists of 100 % plant fibers and algae extracts, is edible and degrades in about six weeks in a natural environment.
The company Leaf Republic developed disposable tableware made from palm leaves from Asia and South America – similar to arekapak who presses packaging from the leaves of the areka palm, a waste product of Indian agriculture (utopia).
Another way to cut down packaging or to use sustainably friendly packaging when buying food products are reusable systems such as Ecobox or Recircle who use reusable boxes that are compostable and fairly produced in order to make deliveries more sustainable and to dispense with Styrofoam, plastic, aluminum and coated cardboard (utopia). Additionally, as an individual, packaging multiple foods together in the same container or choose packaging designs that require less material, can be a helpful way to minimize packaging as well when grocery shopping. If packaging is inevitable, 100 % biodegradable, compostable and recyclable materials as aforementioned and a proper disposal can be a great sustainable alternative (GBB).
The key to mitigating the damage our food production system causes starts with selecting and sourcing sustainably grown and manufactured products. Food miles, the distance food must travel, and the nature of its packaging materials are also important variables of the sustainable food equation (GBB).
By Marie Klimczak