Innovative food packaging, explained

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Bowls made of mushrooms, cups made of seaweed, and pods made of detergent: designers are creating temporary plastic substitutes. But are we ready to accept them?

Around the table scattered with Exacto knives, bowls, cutting boards, tape, funnels and sacks of powder, mushroom parts and sugar, more than a dozen graduate students from the packaging and industrial design department

Brainstorming in Brooklyn, New York.

Their profile? create

Replace the unsustainable designs that modern life relies on: disposable plastic beverage cups, lids, straws and bottles.

Focusing on the long-lived debris that usually accompanies take-out meals, the students baked 3D printed straws made of sugar and agar and used 3D printed straws. Agar is a gelatinous substance extracted from seaweed. They shape the bowl shape by hand from the mycelium (the thread-like root of the mushroom). A team designed some black plastic flakes that can be folded into a take-out container (as shown in the picture above), which can be returned to the collection point for disinfection and reuse.

It is formed by the takeaway chain consortium. Another duo made an ingenious cardboard box with a self-folding fork/spoon combination that diners would tear from the perforated edge (above). After lunch, everything is stacked in the compost bin. Of course, in an ideal world, the compost bin will never be far away from it.

"As the unintended consequences of plastics become more and more obvious locally and globally, our demand for packaging alternatives is growing sharply," Kate Daly said.

, A socially influential investment fund focused on waste.

Of the 78 million tons of plastic packaging produced globally each year, only

. Lightweight and floatable plastic, can avoid collection

9 million tons per year, most of which come from developing countries that lack management of this infrastructure. As these countries become more affluent, they inevitably begin to consume more packaged foods, and as many other countries that are increasingly obsessed with the convenience world continue to buy meals and grocery services (produce large amounts of packaging) and deliver them, The problem is expected to become more serious. food.

A brief history of how plastics changed our world

More serious recycling will be a boon, but it is not a panacea. Recycling requires the transportation of energy, water and materials. Most recycled plastic is shredded, melted, and re-made into commodities (such as wood, wool or carpet), which is eventually shipped to landfills. Manufacturers have been making bottles and shrink wraps thinner and thinner, but the fact remains: plastics are made from non-renewable resources (oil or natural gas), and most of them are not recycled.

But plastic is excellent in its use, which makes it very difficult to replace. Plastics can protect food for a long time, preventing food from stress, humidity, light and bacteria that accelerate decay. (Use cucumber to shrink the cucumber and its

. However, this packaging may last more than a century. ) Plastic is strong and transparent, allowing consumers to see what they are buying. Plastic raw materials are widely available and incredibly cheap. At least for now (yes.

Shortly after the turn of the 20th century

Over the centuries, food companies have begun to use soft packaging called cellophane made from plants. Chemists later imitated this bio-based polymer with polyvinyl chloride and later less toxic polyethylene to make Saran wrappers. Although cellophane is compostable, the oil film and subsequent rigid plastic containers are not. The stage is ready for a discardable future.

In the 1970s, Capri Sun began to pour its juice drinks into gusseted pouches, which weighed less than a plastic bottle of the same size. These pouches are made of fused ultra-thin plastic and aluminum foil, can be transported flat (saving space), and do not need to be refrigerated to keep food fresh. Today, this kind of bag is everywhere, holding everything from tuna to ketchup, pet food to pickles. It is estimated that Americans complete 92 billion sachets every year. But the prospects for the end of their lives are bleak. Facts have proved that the sachet is a stone for the recycling company, and the latter cannot separate its heterogeneous layer.

The cucumber is shrink-wrapped with polyethylene, and the shelf life is extended from three days to 14 days. However, this packaging may last more than a century.

Designers, engineers, biologists, investors, and recyclers often work together to develop packaging that meets the so-called packaging requirements.


It is a design framework that avoids the linear "acquisition, manufacture, waste" model from oil wells to refineries, from manufacturing plants to supermarkets, and from consumers to landfills. Instead, it envisions supply chains that continuously recycle old materials back to high-value products (focusing on durable design, remanufacturing, and reuse), as well as facilitating sharing and leasing (washing machines, cars) rather than ownership Business model. . In a circular economy, material goods circulate in two separate cycles. One uses the composting process to recover technical nutrients such as metals, minerals and polymers for reuse, the other uses the composting process to return biological materials (fiber, wood) to nature, or converts them to carbon neutral through anaerobic digestion energy.

In order to imagine the packaging of the future, many designers are looking for inspiration from the past.

The Swedish research institute has produced a prototype of an almost flat cellulose-based container, for example, a soup maker can fill it with freeze-dried vegetables and spices. When the diners add hot water, the origami of the container folds into a complete, fully compostable bowl. The students at Pratt University used mycelium to shape a bowl, which grows in a week and composts in less than a month.

Harvard University


"This is a completely compostable, low-cost, transparent plastic. Snare made of chitosan derived from shrimp shells and silk protein derived from insects can be used to make films or rigid shapes. Unfortunately, it has not yet entered food The packaging field, because it requires manufacturers to adjust their machines.

Of course, the future of compostability depends on the universal availability and participation of consumers in municipal composting systems, which collect organic materials to convert them into fertilizer or energy. Hundreds of cities in the European Union, Canada and the United States are moving in this direction, but building a system may bring chicken and egg problems. For example, in New York City, the amount of available materials far exceeds the capabilities of nearby processors. However, investors are reluctant to build facilities without guarantees.

Then there is the question of human nature. Fred Skeberg, Swedish product developer and founder of food and design websites

I once found myself at a music festival where vendors served food on "edible" cornstarch-based plates, with the intention of throwing them into compost bins. But people think that bowls and plates will disappear in nature. Skeberg said, “They threw bowls and plates everywhere. So it’s counterproductive.” As the United Nations said

, "Marking a product as a biodegradable product can be seen as a technical means that can eliminate personal liability."

Before the system and people are synchronized, a large amount of compostable packaging will eventually enter the landfill, where greenhouse gases will be generated. If compostables land in a recycling plant by mistake (many plant-based plastics are similar to their oil-based cousins), they are considered pollutants. What if they drift into the ocean? Compostable plastics are designed to degrade when exposed to ultraviolet light at temperatures around 135°F. Since degradable substances are heavier than oil-based plastics, they may sink and last for many years.

Considering these challenges, some designers prefer to use plastics, because recycling systems have already been established in developed countries at least. Currently, more than 30 different plastics are used in packaging, but some innovators are looking for a single polymer group. This super plastic can meet multiple performance requirements, is affordable by manufacturers, and requires few mechanical requirements. And it has been widely accepted through the municipal recycling system and easily converted to new packaging. But so far, the product is still elusive.

At the same time, some designers plan to completely eliminate disposable packaging. consider

: Starbucks promised to phase it out by 2020, and should adopt the out mouth on the extended lid. The weight of the new lid will be heavier than the old lid, but the larger plastic blocks are more likely to be produced through the recycling bin.

The same idea (don't do it) may apply to pasta, which is usually packaged in a recyclable cardboard box and in front of a non-recyclable plastic window. Dayna Baumeister, co-founder of the consulting firm, said: "Just because the materials exist, you don't have to add them."

. "Why can't we accept photos of pasta like dried grains and get rid of the window?"

Or the whole package? American company

Produce a series of transparent ethylene-based polymers that are soluble in water. This polymer is most commonly used in dishwashers or laundry rooms, and can also be

According to the regulations of European and American regulatory agencies, food contains food and has no effect on smell, texture or taste (unless flavoring is added). The food service industry is already using melted packaging: MonoSol envisions a future in which the retail portion of hot cocoa, oatmeal, rice, pasta or other hot-water-cooked foods will become commonplace.

Similarly, the Swedish design studio

Developed a series of food packaging, called "

", including a small bottle of edible oil made from caramel sugar coated with wax. The bottle bursts like an egg, releasing the oil, and the wax shell can be composted (but don’t hold your breath: it takes years for the wax to decompose). For frozen liquids, the company designed a sachet made of seaweed, claiming that the sachet “will wilt at the same rate as its contents.” For rice and other dry goods, it made pyramids made of colored beeswax The packaging can be peeled off like an orange. These designs have attracted great attention because of their beauty and hope, but at this point, they are only concepts.

As his "

"Thesis project, a designer based in New York

By sticking the packaging bag on the accordion book from time to time, the outer container of the boxed tea bag and the plastic shrink packaging are eliminated. The user tore off one tea bag at a time, and the book eventually shrank.

Before the system and personnel are synchronized, a large amount of compostable packaging will eventually be landfilled.

Headquartered in the United States, it uses laver mixed with organic sweeteners, flavors and colorants to make FDA-approved edible (and therefore compostable) cups. Each contains 135 calories and can hold cold or room temperature beverages, costing one dollar per person. Loliware co-founder Chelsea Briganti (Chelsea Briganti) said that they have a paper sleeve like an ice cream cone, which "makes users feel comfortable." The company also produces edible straws based on kelp. In meetings with major food and beverage retailers, Loliware is rapidly expanding its scale and plans to reduce its price and replace 1 billion plastic straws every year.

Inspired by the way nature separates the inside from the outside (such as grape skins), scientists are experimenting with edible membranes to hold liquids. Start-up companies

Produced unpackaged water, dubbed

, The method is to immerse ice balls in the extracts of plants and brown algae to form an impermeable membrane. The consumer bites the ball, releases a few mouthfuls of cold water, and then swallows the film itself. These balls will be produced by compact machines at the point of sale, thus eliminating the need for cups.

David Edwards of Harvard University created his own version of edible skin called

, Use fruits and other organic molecules to wrap soft and perishable products as stand-up foods. Stonyfield used the technology on it

It debuted in 2014, but the sales were poor and the pearls disappeared. "This is a great attempt," said Stonyfield CEO Gary Hirshberg (Gary Hirshberg). "However, consumers find it difficult to understand when picking up unpackaged products, even if they can wash them." (The company is now experimenting with bamboo-based yogurt cups that degrade in backyard compost, which is more difficult than just Composting materials in industrial facilities have improved.)

Today, you can find WikiCells surrounded by

Fruit snacks. However, consumers will not extract these products from bulk containers: snacks are packed in non-recyclable plastic bags or trays. "We tried some products with minimalist packaging design," said Marty Kolewe, the company's R&D director

The company that owns PerfectlyFree, "but it turns out that consumers and the business infrastructure surrounding food distribution are a way to accept true unpackaged products."

The ultra-packaged meal package delivery service, which can deliver ingredients and recipes for one meal, is a $1.2 billion market, and some analysts predict it will quadruple by 2023. However, what follows is a large pile of goods that cannot be recycled or are difficult to recycle. Ice bag, bubble film and polystyrene foam packaging.

A three-year-old company

In response to this waste challenge, we adopted a fully recyclable insulated transport box, thus eliminating the need for expanded polystyrene packaging peanuts, which are made from oil and natural gas and are not protected in recycling plants. welcome.

How does Temperpack, used by the largest meal box company in the United States, prevent Camembert from being squashed or melted? Its kraft paper layer is filled with Climacell, a bio-based foam that melts into cellulose fibers together with the box itself in the pulp mill. According to Temperpack, the production of Climacell foam can produce one-tenth of the greenhouse gas produced by the production of polystyrene peanuts. But there is still a large amount of non-recyclable waste: an industry survey of three different mail-order meals shows that there are a total of 72 plastic packaging, of which only 23 can be recycled.

Critics say that better solutions will challenge individuals to adopt completely different consumption patterns: consumption patterns that do not involve any disposable packaging.

While designers and psychologists are working hard to solve these problems, the government can also formulate policies to reduce packaging waste, such as imposing higher taxes on fossil fuels used to make single-use plastics. They can enact a minimum recycling rate law, which requires manufacturers to make new materials from old materials and require deposits on packaging to ensure that more of the materials are recycled and reused. And, of course, they can ban disposable plastic products-including bags, straws and cups.

Some retailers are already on it:

A supermarket in the Netherlands provides more than 700 "plastic-free" products for the aisle. These products are wrapped or packaged in cardboard, metal, glass or certified compostable plastic. British Retailer Iceland Plan

Withdraw from all its own-brand products within five years and use compostable recyclable glass bottles, paper and pulp trays, and plastics such as cellulose.

Some critics say that better solutions will challenge individuals to adopt completely different consumption patterns: consumption patterns that do not involve any disposable packaging.

, The Czech Packaging and Transportation System won the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's

, It seems that this task can be completed. After ordering food using the MIWA app, manufacturers and wholesalers put their items (whether biscuits, chopped liver, or celery) into durable, reusable containers and capsules, and then ship them to nearby stores or In the consumer's home. When the capsules are used up, MIWA will collect, sterilize and return them to the manufacturer before refilling them.

So far, MIWA is just a thought experiment, but it points to solutions that are already working today: bring washable bags and cans to sell bulk food or be willing to slice provolone and salami. Shop in the container; shop at the farmers’ market to buy naked cucumbers; buy beer from refillable growers; and avoid convenience foods as much as possible.

Dayna Baumeister said: "Technology will not free us from the mystery of waste." "The human psychology must change. At some point, you only need to say enough."

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