Common single-use plastic packaging pictured above in a landfill

With growing concerns about plastic pollution, consumers and businesses alike are looking for more environmentally friendly alternatives to single-use plastic packaging. While some may argue for package-free options, this is often not viable, especially for the food industry. Plastic packaging of food provides protection during transport, extends shelf life, and blocks germs. The UK government reported that only 3% of its food is wasted before reaching supermarkets, whereas developing countries observe a 50% rise in large part due to the lack of effective packaging. 

Bioplastics have often been touted as an alternative, as they are derived from renewable materials such as cornstarches and sugarcane. However, these plastics can still take hundreds of years to break down. Many companies are thus turning to edible packaging, deriving plastic from edible and hyper-compostable materials. Researchers developing edible plastics are using strong, natural polymers derived from plants. 

One popular polymer source is seaweed. London-based startup Notpla is creating edible pods using a waterproof film formed by combining seaweed extract sodium alginate with calcium chloride. Calcium ions cross-link the alginate to form calcium alginate fibers that create the waterproof membrane. These pods from Notpla have been used for sports drinks, condiment packages, and whiskey cocktails. Approaches for solid foods are currently being tested by the company. Other seaweed-derived plastics include straws from New York company Loliware, which are now used by both Marriott Hotels and beverage company Pernod Ricard, and burger wrappers from Indonesian company Evoware. Another polymer source has been found in the milk protein casein from the US Department of Agriculture. This polymer has developed transparent films that can block oxygen 500 times as effectively as traditional plastic wrap. 

Some hurdles to wide-use edible packaging are public health concerns, increased cost, and customer comfortability in eating something that is usually thrown away. However, even if not consumed, edible packaging will decompose much faster than traditional plastics. Technical challenges for edible plastics still need to be overcome, too, such as robustness to moisture and heat. While these plant-derived plastics can be more environmentally-friendly alternatives to traditional plastics, their origins will need to be abundant and cheap in order to be sustainable and noncompetitive with food sources.

Although edible packaging still needs development, researchers are looking to use these alternatives to minimize the amount of single-use plastic rather than completely replace it. Prime applications of edible packaging may include food- and beverage-related items that are likely to go unrecycled. Other viable markets may include ocean cruises and air travel, where the extra cost of edible ware is insignificant compared to the overall cost of the trip, as well as outdoor recreation. 
Efforts in both technology and marketing have the potential to make edible packaging widespread. Food industry trend experts point towards a growing eco-conscious consumer population that will push companies to meet that demand, as exhibited by the inclusion of plant-based burgers on Burger King’s menu in 2019. Transparency Market Research, a global research firm, estimates that the edible packaging market could be worth $2 billion worldwide by 2024 with a 6.9% average yearly increase. With strides in scientific research, creative marketing, and a growing ethical consumer population, edible packaging has the potential to begin to address our plastic pollution conundrum. Plus, wouldn’t it be fun to eat your wrappers?

Peer edited by Jenna Beam

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