Plastics is one of the biggest challenges the world is facing right now. Consumers are suddenly aware of the thousands of tonnes of plastic filling the ocean. In fact, if current trends continue, by 2050, the world’s oceans will contain 895 million tons of fish and 937 million tons of plastic.
It is no longer enough to just be using recycled plastics, most of the bottles contain a percentage of recycled plastic, the majority of the bottle being newly created plastic. The industry needs to work towards entirely plastic-free packaging.
There are 13 notable plastic packaging alternatives that are available now for manufacturers to use, so there is little excuse. It’s only a matter of time before their competitors start using one of these alternatives and gain differentiation in the market.
A.K.A. Bioplastics are made from a variety of sources such as corn, which is broken down into PLA, or polylactic acid. This is incredibly sustainable to produce, as it’s made from the waste products from the production of corn – which is also easy to grow. PLA can be used to make drinks bottles, various food grade containers, as well as films. Eco-heroes Innocent are now making their bottles from 15% PLA.
With Mycelium (mushroom roots, funnily enough, the same stuff that Quorn is made from), packaging is literally grown. Ecovative Design gather agricultural waste, mix it with the mycelium in moulds and then the packaging quite literally grows. You can see how it works here, though I’m not 100% sure it isn’t magic.
Bagasse is a by-product of sugarcane processing. Due to its malleability and stickiness, it can be easily moulded into packaging suitable for food delivery and food service – similar to polystyrene. Unlike polystyrene, it’s certified biodegradable and compostable, and being a by-product, much more sustainable to produce.
Seaweed water bubbles
UK startup Ooho has created an edible (and by default, biodegradable) water bubble made of seaweed. Their aim is “to provide the convenience of plastic bottles while limiting the environmental impact”.
They have developed manufacturing processes that make this both more efficient and cheaper than producing plastic bottles. The process produces 5x less CO₂ and uses 9x less Energy vs PET production.
Beauty behemoth L’Oréal have just launched an eco-beauty range, Seed Phytonutrients. The products themselves sound lovely (made from 93-100% natural ingredients, cruelty -free, paraben-free etc.) but the packaging is where the real innovation is.
Made by Ecologic, the outer card is recycled, recyclable, compostable, glue-free and water-resistant. The inner liner is made with recyclable plastic, and uses 60% less material than regular plastic bottles.
Stone paper and plastic
It might surprise you to know that paper can be made out of stone. It certainly did me. I have a stone paper notebook and it has the most beautiful smooth finish, almost cool to the touch. This incredible innovation has several possible packaging applications. It can be used as a paper or plastic alternative, being printable, recyclable, water-proof… and its eco-credentials look pretty good too. It is made from calcium carbonate, which is one of the Earth’s most abundant resources and its production process uses less water, has a lower carbon footprint, and is more energy efficient than regular paper production.
Stone paper can also be used to make FDA certified food grade packaging. This can be used for making paper (supermarket singlet) bags, takeaway food cartons, greaseproof paper wraps as well as Ziplock bags.
Holy Lama use palm leaves from the areca palm to create the oyster-like cases for their handmade soaps. The leaves fall naturally from the areca palm, then they are collected and moulded into the desired shape. Brilliantly environmentally friendly as they use a natural waste product of the areca palm and the final packaging product is biodegradable.
A Berlin startup Arekapak is developing palm leaf packaging for food such as fresh fruit, vegetables and nuts.
Corn starch and sorghum loose fill
EcoFlo loose fill is made from corn starch and can be used the same way as regular polystyrene loose fill. This eco version – which can also be made from sorghum (a crop similar to popcorn) – is biodegradable, odour free, and maybe best of all; static-free!
Edible six-pack ring
Saltwater Brewery in America have developed a material for their six-pack rings which is not only biodegradable and compostable, but also edible. Made of barley and wheat remnants which are a by-product of the brewing process, if it’s dropped in the ocean now, this packaging will actually benefit the sea life!
Silberboard – metallised paper
Developed as a sustainable alternative to traditional composite metallised papers and boards, Silberboard is both recyclable and compostable. The paper weight can be used for food on-the-go and labelling, the card weight can be used for all kinds of boxes – for food, household goods, pharmaceuticals… etc. etc.
Wood pulp cellophane
NatureFlex is the sustainable younger brother of cellophane, which is made from FSC certified wood pulp, and certified biodegradable. It comes as Uncoated, which is perfect for chocolate and confectionery as well as household items; Semi-Permeable, which can be used for fresh produce and dairy; and Barrier for bakery, snacks, coffee, tea, chocolate, confectionery as well as home and personal care items.
Prawn shell plastic bags
Scientists around the world are developing plastic alternatives out of the most unlikely things. One of these is chitosan, which is made from prawn and crab shells, which are usually a waste product. No-one has commercialised this technology yet – but the material has the potential to replace plastic in packaging for food and drinks.
Casein – the protein found in milk – has been used to make plastic for over a century, but it went out of fashion in favour of the more hardwearing, long-lasting petrochemical variety. Lactips have developed tech that combines the protein with clay and a reactive molecule (glyceraldehyde) which make the plastic much stronger, but still biodegradable. Lactips already produce milk plastic for the detergent industry (you know those little bubbles you pop in the dishwasher?) and now are looking to move into the food and beverage industry, as well as pharmaceuticals and agrochemicals.