The Rise of Compostable Packaging: Moving Beyond Recycling and Reusing
The past several years have seen an awakening of the conscious consumer: plastic is passé, and recyclable is being rejected in favor of an alt that is even more green — compostable.
Plastic has officially become a dirty word. Straws, bags, cutlery, and more have been banned in cities, municipalities, and whole countries as more individuals become aware of the ecological impact of disposable packaging products.
Indeed, 78 million tons of plastic packaging are produced every year, according to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, and only 14 percent are recycled. The rest end up polluting oceans and rivers, injuring sea life, and damaging coral and plants below the water's surface. While consumer movements have begun to encourage companies to change their plastic practices, some brands are ahead of the game, creating innovative designs with compostable materials that disrupt our traditional concepts of sustainability and food waste.
Speaking with two companies, I delve into the future of food packaging and consider how this looks from the businesses that are reimagining our traditional concepts.
Rethinking Plastic Wrappings and Containers
Using materials derived from fruits, Apeel Sciences has created an edible and invisible coating that is able to double the lifespan of fruits and vegetables without refrigeration. This coating naturally slows water loss and oxidation, the primary causes of spoilage, according to Jessica Vieria, Ph.D. and Director of Sustainability at Apeel Sciences.
Since produce lasts twice as long once coated with the Appel product, less food is wasted both during the shipping process and once purchased. The coating provides extra time for the growers as well, encouraging producers to allow products to fully ripen before harvest, which often doesn't occur due to the time constraints of transportation and distribution.
This technology also eliminates the use for plastic wrappers, which Apeel considers a win-win from a sustainability perspective. As Vieria notes, "Once the Apeel coating is applied, the water loss and oxidation slows down for the rest of its life, giving more time for distribution, storage, retailing, and to consume in your home. With more time throughout the supply chain, Apeel fruits and vegetables can even be allowed to fully ripen before they're harvested, so they can be more nutritious and significantly better tasting."
Taking on the Plastic Straw
It's unlikely that one single item has received as much ire as the plastic straw. When a video went viral of a tortured turtle with a straw stuck in its nose, the anti-straw movement found new life, and all sorts of soggy and strange straw alternatives became available.
Stroodles, a pasta turned drinking device, advocates not only for an alternative to the disposable culture, but a good and easy one at that. Rejecting the notion that making a positive impact needs to be difficult or compromise our behaviors, the Stroodles straws are 100 percent biodegradable, flavorless, and made from durum wheat and water. Chief Stroodle (yes, that's his real title), Maxim Gelmann explains, "Unlike soggy paper straws, Stroodles stand strong in cold drinks for well over an hour and don't change the taste of your drink. They can be used in all drinks, from cocktails to thick smoothies to freshly-squeezed juices. Stroodles can even be eaten just the way they are (a nice snack after a few G&T's) or can, of course, be boiled just like normal pasta, to make a delicious Mojito-carbonara or spaghetti bolognese!"
Inspired by his travels and diving adventures, the idea for Stroodles took root for Gellam as he became increasingly aware of the plastic problem while swimming under water. "I then saw Italians just drinking from long (but thin) tubular pasta purely for fun, something 'clicked.' That's when my head started working at 100 miles an hour at the realization, how something so simple can be powerful enough to actually solve such a big global problem."
Two Steps Forward, One Step Back
You've likely seen compostable plastics touted in supermarkets or when you pick up from your favorite take-out spot. Compostable plastics are frequently touted as a favorable plant-based alt to take on the petrochemical nasties. Made from poly-latic acid (PLA) and other plant-based materials, biodegradable plastics are a step in the right direction and help consumers and brands move towards a more circular economy. But using compostable products may not actually be the eco-friendly choice you think it is — at least not yet.
Unfortunately, the step has come too soon in some cases, as cities and waste facilities struggle to keep up with the processing of this new type of packaging. Compostable plastic requires specific conditions in which to be broken down, including high heat, bacteria and an extended compost time. Head of Product and Supply Chain at Eataly Toronto, Olivia Grant noted that, "Companies often don't have the facilities to dispose of compostable packaging on site, leaving us having to throw the packaging in the trash."
From PLA to researchers upcycling food waste into bioplastics, the future is bright with innovations to reduce the impact of packaging on the environment. More solutions could be right around the corner, according to Gellam, who believes that the future of sustainable packaging will come from both simple and obvious ideas that are already around us.