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The latest initiatives in edible packaging made of natural, biodegradable materials have whet many an appetite while simultaneously fulfilling an all-important role of eliminating and reducing waste from plastic packaging.
Can You Eat What You Throw?
With an ever-growing global population, resources are in danger of becoming scarce. In 2017, it was estimated that 8.3 billion tonnes of virgin plastic had been produced worldwide, with only 9% said to be recycled. Globally, 300 million tons of plastic are produced each year: 40% goes to packaging, of which 50% is single-use plastics. Only 14% is recycled.
Bioplastics made from cornstarch and sugarcane are marketed as eco-friendly biodegradable solutions, yet can take hundreds of years to break down in landfills, or they simply end up in the ocean. An answer to this problem could be Wastewater Bioplastics, which offers a feasible and useful alternative for converting organic solid waste into a valuable byproduct that has multiple commercial applications of bioplastics. Yet, advancements in edible packaging development may lead to an even more resource-efficient and zero waste society. Much more than being merely compostable, edible packaging do not need to be collected, processed, recycled, or disposed of —by design, they are meant to be eaten.
Edible packaging is typically made of raw materials such as seaweed, brown algae, plants, milk protein casein, as well as beer byproducts, and composites such as sodium alginate and calcium lactate. By processing vegetable starch and water with high pressure and heat, Lush created an edible biostyrofoam to create edible packaging peanuts which produce 23% less energy to produce than their previous packing material of choice: popcorn.
Evoware is an Indonesian startup that produces plastic-free food wrappings such as burger wraps and condiment sachets made of seaweed. In addition to cutting plastic use —Indonesia is the second-biggest source of ocean plastic waste— Evoware hopes to provide income to local seaweed farmers.
London-based Skipping Rocks Lab developed Ooho, a flexible packaging for beverages and sauces. Ooho is made from Notpla, a biodegradable edible seaweed, and calcium chloride, resembling a silicone implant.
Loliware created an edible cup made from agar or seaweed extract. The New York-based company also developed a range of flavored edible straws for consumer purchase that are made from red algae and behave like plastic for 24 hours once they become wet.
Saltwater Brewery created edible ring holders made from wheat and barley obtained from the natural by-products of beer production.
AgroNano is developing a film-like material made from freeze-dried foods, a process also known as lyophilization. The outcome is totally dehydrated, yet nutritious food.
Opportunities & Challenges
The production of edible coatings is mostly still at the research level, and more widespread use is limited at present. Limitations include poor water vapor permeability, low stability to sustain mechanical strength and cost-effectiveness. A lot of our trash consists of food waste, plastic food wrapping, disposable product packaging, and cheap disposable goods designed exclusively to be used once and thrown away. This means that there is also a social challenge to overcome in terms of public acceptance in eating products traditionally viewed as waste.
However, due to the achievement of biomaterials with regards to resistance and texture, edible packaging is gaining attention, and further developments are expected with enthusiasm. It might not take long to start hearing questions like, “Are you going to finish that cup?” at the family picnic.
Edible packaging could also support the development of intelligent and active packaging, designed with internal structural mechanisms that can detect deterioration and thereby prolong product shelf life, especially for fresh food. With an ever-growing global population, resources are in danger of becoming scarce; we can no longer afford to waste anything. Advancements in edible packaging development may therefore lead to a more resource-efficient and zero waste society.