In recent years, the packaging industry has introduced a series of innovations in sustainability derived from nature: plastic bags with shrimp shells, reuse of palm leaves, cellulose molding, cellophane from wood pulp, etc. But such notions have their limitations: both in functionality and in how fully recyclable they really are.
Enter the next phase: packaging that uses natural processes to not only fully break down, but may put some back into the soil; that is, produce a net ecological benefit. Welcome to the era of ‘biocontributory’ packaging.
“We are exploring more and more natural materials that can be used in the expected way, including packaging that is edible, that worms and bacteria will feast on, to fertilize the next life cycle,” explains Pierre Paslier, a former L’Oréal packaging engineer and co-founder of the packaging company Notpla. Notpla is an edible material made from brown algae, which grows up to a meter per day, without the need for fresh water or fertilizers, and completely biodegrades in about a month.
Until now it has been used to create sachets suitable for holding water or condiments, and the company works by applying a layer of the material to cardboard (the protective surfaces of cardboard are often made of plastic), using the waste fiber from seaweed to create a new form of cardboard and the design of water-soluble packaging for products such as pasta. Crucially, using a natural source for the material means that it is home compostable (as opposed to ‘hot’ industrial composting).
In fact, Amir Afshar, co-founder and product manager of the startup Shellworks, founded in 2019 with the creation of Vivomer, a rigid vegan material created from soil and marine microorganisms, suggests that this new generation of materials are the first to be adequately biodegradable. The term to date has often been applied to those materials that actually require a special environment to break down, energy-intensive industrial processes to do so, or only break down into microplastics.
“So it’s another question whether on a chemical level that material is really gone or not,” says Afshar, whose UK-based company is now testing Shellmer, a flexible, water-soluble, antimicrobial biopolymer and natural fertilizer extracted from fish and shellfish waste. “Compare that to reusing a natural polymer that breaks down into the components it came from. This is contributing to nature in the way that, for example, a fallen branch breaks down to become part of the mulch. It is, naturally, totally recyclable”.
Bio-contributor by nature
Retail companies have also been exploring how to produce packaging that contributes biologically as it degrades. Body care brand Haeckels has recently introduced a bottle seal made from seaweed, which stays moist until ready to use and seals as it dehydrates. The company is also experimenting with mycelium, derived from the roots of mushrooms, which can be mixed with agricultural waste, molded and dried to form lightweight, impact-resistant packaging.
Other examples include seed-embedded plantable packaging for Bloom Everlasting Chocolate; plantable wrapping paper such as Eden’s Paper; and the cork jars from the cosmetics company Lush, whose production sequesters 33 times its weight in carbon dioxide.
Jessica Vieira is vice president of sustainability for the American company Apeel, which in 2019 developed a tasteless and odorless plant-based protective barrier, made from the same materials found in the husks, pulp and seeds, to slow down the process of food spoilage and maintain freshness for longer, reducing both food waste and the use of packaging. She argues that the ‘naturalness’ of the product is particularly reassuring to consumers.
“Looking at nature, which has already figured out how to recycle beautifully and efficiently, is the main motivator for trying to provide solutions. [for packaging sustainability issues],” she says.
While the pace of innovation is impressive, there are challenges, particularly in terms of speed and scale of production. Most of the innovations don’t come from the major manufacturers, but from small start-ups, who then have to sell the idea to a big player. “And they may be reluctant to try these strange seaweeds,” as Notpla’s Paslier says. After all, many similar biomaterials were experimented with decades ago but failed to take hold, in part because the issue of plastic sustainability was not as well understood.
And biocontributory packaging is not without its limitations: mycelium-based packaging, for example, sometimes hailed as the most commercially viable option, is only suitable for dry products. “Biologically contributing packaging also has a short shelf life,” adds Paslier. “Our chemists are working to spread it, but they take it too far and nature stops recognizing the material and then biodegradation doesn’t work.”
Pricing, for the time being, remains a challenge: mycelium-based packaging is still considerably more expensive than plastic, and aesthetics can be an issue for some brands. Communication is also likely to be an issue, and not just to encourage consumers to compost at home rather than send the organic matter to landfill where it will emit methane.
“The developers of this type of [bio-neutral or bio-contributing] The materials must make it clear what they are for the final consumer and how to use them; we have worked hard to ensure that our material does not feel like plastic, for example, so that it is not misread and therefore misunderstood. handled in recycling. It’s about how to make a clear distinction from plastics without giving the material that green material look with fibrous specks. [that not all brands want].”
But the demand is clearly there. Sainsbury’s, for example, aims to sell most of its fresh organic produce and own-brand ready meals in corn-based home compostable packaging. Asda and Tesco are moving to use Apeel’s protective coating on citrus fruits.
“We joke that we are selling an invisible product that solves an invisible problem,” laughs Vieira de Apeel. “But products that use nature-based solutions often deliver win-win results, not compromises. There is a lot of excitement around this kind of innovation.”