What is Eco-friendly Food Packaging?
The future of the food industry is in the early stages of a global revolution, with hundreds of nations taking steps towards the criminalisation of single-use plastic.
First to be phased out was the plastic bag, with the United Nations confirming that over 127 countries have already put policies in place to regulate their use. In Kenya and Rwanda, individuals found to be producing, selling or even carrying a plastic bag face up to four years of jail time. Yet despite even the strictest of penalties on plastic bags, the fact remains that the majority of single-use plastic is produced by the food industry. In 2018 a global beach cleanup and survey orchestrated by Ocean Conservancy, reported that food packaging made up ninety per cent of plastic pollution found on beaches worldwide.
Why Eco-Friendly Packaging is the Future
This statistic becomes even more alarming when compounded with a scientific study that revealed 97 per cent of plastic is found beneath the ocean’s surface. This shocking reality explains why the World Economic Forum has predicted that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean! The sheer volume of plastic both in the ocean and on land, has reached catastrophic levels. To put this into perspective pollution from single-use plastics (such as traditional food packaging) has led a number of scientists to believe that we have now entered the ‘Plastic Age’.
This means that the 360 million tons of plastic produced in the last year alone, will have a geological impact so profound that traces of plastic will be found within the fossils of future millennia. John Marston, a well-renowned environmental archaeologist, has predicted that in the future plastic “will be found in stratified layers in our trash deposits.” This makes the Great Pacific Garbage Patch the least of our problems, which is presumably why global leaders have begun to phase out single-use plastic entirely. Due to the strong link between traditional food packaging and single-use plastic, mass change is afoot in the food industry.
In Europe the ban of single-use plastic is scheduled to take effect from 2021, after which straws, stirrers, food containers, plates, polystyrene cups and plastic cutlery will officially be a criminal offence. While offenders will not find themselves behind bars, hefty fines and penalties will be imposed. The legal and social implications have presented food vendors with no choice but to get on board. However it’s not all doom and gloom, and the phasing out of single-use plastic has led to exciting innovation in the realm of eco-friendly food packaging.
Eco-Friendly Food Packaging Defined
The term ‘eco-friendly’ is defined by the Urban Dictionary to mean ‘a product or idea designed or implemented to have a small footprint on the environment, either through manufacturing or use.’ In terms of food packaging, the term ‘eco-friendly’ means that serving vessels can either be reused or recycled. Additionally, with the development of technology, it can also mean that packaging is fully biodegradable, compostable or even edible! There is an infinite array of eco-friendly food packaging available, and the sheer creativity of these products is both astounding and inspirational.
While the notion of ‘Reduce, Reuse and Recycle’ has been drilled into the minds of the masses, with the exception of ‘Reuse’ the majority of the population is in the dark about the specifics of the other two rules. For starters, with the development of technology it is now possible to recycle most plastics, however, not all recycling depots offer this facility and recycling plastics still supports their initial production. In addition to the varying recycling services available, there are so many different types of food packaging on the market, that knowing exactly what can be recycled can seem a little complicated.
In terms of reducing waste, the terms ‘biodegradable’ and ‘compostable’ are often used interchangeably but they have two different meanings. Due to the fact that biodegradable and compostable products are both scientifically formulated to decompose, there is much confusion as to the difference between the two categories. While both products are on the cutting edge of eco-friendly food packaging, biodegradable products will decompose independently whereas compostable packaging requires certain conditions in order to disintegrate.
To add a layer of complexity to the term ‘biodegradable’, this buzz word is often used loosely to describe any product that will naturally decompose at some point. However, while it may technically be true that a plastic water bottle will disintegrate ‘naturally’ in the next few centuries, the process of decomposition is too slow to be considered ecologically friendly. Additionally, non-natural products such as plastic will not fully return to the earth and their toxic traces will last forever. When it comes to biodegradable products there is a fair amount of science involved, and this will be outlined in detail a little later on.
Eco-Friendly Food Packaging is Gaining Popularity among Consumers
The upside to our world’s impending doom is that humanity has risen to the occasion and invented a number of exciting alternatives to single-use plastic. These fabulous breakthroughs in the field of eco-friendly food packaging range from colourful edible cups, to trusty staples such as cardboard boxes and deli trays. Environmentally conscious consumers (which is pretty much everyone right now), get a thrill from innovative eco-friendly packaging, and it sends a clear message that a company is doing its part.
There really is no limit to choices with eco-friendly products, and aside from the typically eye-catching aesthetics, eco-friendly packaging conveys a sense of hope for the future of planet earth. Many consumers actively seek out eco-friendly options and face disappointment at having to turn away their favourite foods when they see it is wrapped in plastic. Eco-friendly packaging caters to far more than a sub-culture or passing trend, it is based on future-focused values and forms part of a green lifestyle.
Costs of eco-friendly packaging are often thought to be astronomical, however sometimes it can even reduce costs! Reusing for example, will save a considerable amount of cash in the long run, as will many recyclable materials. Due to the streamlined nature of most eco-friendly packaging, the cost of transportation and storage can also be reduced. While edible packaging is currently considered high-end, experts have estimated that by 2024 the industry will have expanded into a $2 billion trade. With the expansion of edible food packaging, costs will normalise and the products will be easier to find.
The Science and Future of Eco-Friendly Food Packaging
Before we clear up the pervasive urban myths that surround eco-friendly packaging and delve into the specifics, it’s worth mentioning that the most eco-friendly option is to have no packaging at all. Food for sale without any packaging is known as ‘nude food’, and classified as zero-waste. There are a number of stores popping up that typically dispense whole foods such as nuts, grains and even oils into reusable containers. However, nude food generally isn’t an option for the catering industry for obvious reasons. With the pace of modern society billions of consumers depend on street vendors for sustenance, and as a result the fate of the human race lies in the mix.
Recyclable and Reusable Food Packaging
Paper, glass and tin are the three traditional giants of recycling, and typically can be remade into new products without any major hassle. However, any left-over food or grease stains can cause issues in the recycling process by contaminating entire batches of waste. For this reason, foods such as pizza are best served either on reusable trays or in packaging such as aluminium that can be wiped down. While reusable options are a great choice for eco-friendly catering at festivals, the best option for street food vendors is to use recyclable, compostable or biodegradable food packaging.
Biodegradable versus Compostable Food Packaging
The term ‘biodegradable’ refers to products that break down naturally, creating more space in landfills and requiring no energetic resources to recycle. On the other hand substances that decompose over thousands of years, leaving toxic traces in the eco-system (such as cell phones) are technically referred to as ‘degradable’. Unfortunately, a number of pseudo-green companies are promoting their products as biodegradable, even though the items are not technically eco-friendly. This is known as ’green-washing’ and it has become fairly common in the ‘eco-friendly’ industry.
There is no regulation of the use of this word on products sold under the green guise, nor is there a clear guideline for the amount of decomposition time considered to be sustainable. Truly eco-friendly biodegradable products are plant-based, and break down into organic matter ideally in less than a year. In comparison, compostable food packaging typically decomposes within a matter of months. However the process requires certain environmental conditions and due to the current lack of compost infrastructure worldwide.
It is important to note that both biodegradable and compostable packaging does not decompose at its natural rate in a landfill. While the product may be made out of organic materials, the lack of oxygen in landfills leads them to break down very slowly, thus taking up just as much space as non-biodegradable waste. To make matters worse biodegradable products produce methane when decomposing in a landfill, and this contributes to the greenhouse gas problem we are all trying to avoid. Additionally, both biodegradable and compostable packaging cannot be recycled and will contaminate the entire process if mixed.
When looking for biodegradable and compostable products, try to find out exactly what they are made of. Materials from plants and animals, as well as their waste, are a safe bet for an eco-friendly biodegradable option. Bamboo and coconut are frequently used in place of plastic serving vessels, with beautiful island-style results! Further biodegradable options include Bagasse (sugar cane fibre waste) as well as TIPA’s flexible packaging, Ecovative’s mushroom packaging and much more. All-in-all, if your packaging consists of one hundred percent natural products, it will effectively biodegrade.
Edible Food Packaging
Edible food packaging is always a crowd pleaser, and with the advancements of modern science, you can now have your drink and eat it too! Loliware is known for their colourful edible cups and straws, which come in a variety of delicious flavours including cherry, yogurt and grapefruit. The cups are made from agar seaweed combined with organic sweeteners and colourants to form a truly spectacular eco-friendly alternative. Leading the edible utensil industry is Bakey, with their grain-based products that are available in sweet, spicy and plain flavours. There are a number of awe-inspiring edible packaging options on the market, and these incredible products save on recycling efforts too.
At the forefront of edible food packaging is the Indonesian company, Evoware, who produce edible food wrapping. Seeing as cling wrap cannot be recycled, this fully biodegradable product is on the cutting edge of eco-friendly food packaging. Perhaps most useful (and most sci-fi) invention to date has to be the edible liquid pod, known as the Ooho! UK based Skipping Rocks Lab has created a gel-like seaweed replacement for plastic bottles, and the Ooho! looks like a mini silicone implant. In addition to the super next-gen design, the small pods can be used to hold condiments, water, wine or any liquid.
Despite the hype of edible food packaging, the industry has come under criticism from purist environmentalists who believe that the only way forward is to reuse. In the words of Emily Alfred from Toronto’s Environmental Alliance “We are still dedicating a lot of our resources to these new products, whether it is to create them, transport them, have them packaged or processed.” This statement applies to recyclable materials too; however with global co-operation the transition to eco-friendly packaging appears set to prevent the apocalypse.
The Bottom Line
Single use plastics make up a major percentage of ocean pollution, take up space in the landfills and have a geological impact that can never be erased. With authorities finally putting policies in place to protect our planet, eco-friendly food packaging is soon to be mandatory. Billions of green-conscious consumers actively seek out options with a low environmental impact, and making the switch can reduce overall costs. With traditional eco-friendly techniques such as reusing and recycling, as well as advancements in the field of biodegradable packaging, there is renewed hope for the future of planet earth.