Can our collective curiosity for a sustainable future revolutionize the food packaging industry and reduce waste production?
Brightly colored, customer friendly, resilient, hygienic and safe. Until recently, food packaging was designed so that it would attract the eyes of consumers while not contaminating the food product concealed inside. Today, however, sustainability is a growing concern among food product developers. The impact that contemporary food packaging has on the environment during the production, usage and disposal of the wrapping material is now of considerable interest. Packaging should attractively present the food item according to the interests of the target consumer market, and display necessary information, such as company logos, nutritional content and trademarks. Once used, however, food packaging is typically thrown away, which is an expensive waste of resources, and harmful to the environment. Due to the growing awareness in environmental protection and sustainability, food industry scientists have channeled their curiosity into developing food wrappings that are both biodegradable and edible. Yet are we ready to start eating our food packaging, despite the growing curiosity for a sustainable future?
Plastic Pros and Cons
Globally, at least 8 million tons of plastic ends up in the marine environment each year; and predictions have been made that by the 2050s there will be more plastic in the ocean than individual fish. This has many implications for marine creatures: certain turtle species, for example, often mistake plastic bags suspended in the water column for jellyfish, their primary food source, and subsequently suffocate. Accordingly, there have been attempts to develop biodegradable polymers, including oxo-degradables; however, these substances break down into micro-plastics, which also accumulate in marine organisms. Although plastics are harmful to the environment, they are safe for wrapping food, and easy to mass produce and mold into various shapes and designs. As concerns over environmental protection grow, along with the market for green materials, consumers are becoming more curious about the sustainability of the products they purchase. Accordingly, there is now a drive to develop new polymers that are biodegradable and with little ecological impact.
Since the 1990s, more and more people around the world have started to reduce, reuse and recycle products that enter the household in order to protect the environment and save resources. This increased awareness in recycling also led to a growing curiosity in environmental protection. Many substances, such as paper, glass, certain metals and clothing can now be readily recycled. Despite this, the materials that are used to package food are usually thrown in the bin, often because food residues remain on the packaging, making the surfaces greasy, oily and unpleasant for handling. In addition, due to stricter modern hygiene standards, most food wrappings are coated with a layer of non-stick, non-toxic plastic, which is beneficial for the consumer yet not so advantageous for the environment. For these reasons, there is now a growing demand to innovate a modern alternative to plastic food packaging, due to an increased curiosity in sustainability, which can be easily broken down in the environment, and even fit for humans to eat.
Food for Thought
There are examples of polymers that have been designed so that they can be broken down by bacteria and other microorganisms when they are disposed. For instance, companies such as Tipa are producing Snact wrappers and zip-bags, which take around three months to biodegrade. Moreover, a team of scientists from the United States Department of Agriculture have developed a new form of wrapping that is composed of the substance casein, which is both biodegradable and suitable for human consumption. Comprising a family of phosphoproteins, casein is constituent component of mammalian milk and has a variety of uses, including food additives and binding agents for safety matches. When ingested, casein provides sustenance in the form of proteins, carbohydrates, calcium and phosphorous. The substance has also been processed into plastics, including some of the earliest known examples: a process that sparked the curiosity in the American science team, who aimed to meet the demand for sustainable food packaging, leading to the development of edible food wrappings.
Although some authorities believe that the advancements made in edible food wrappings are a form of sales gimmick, the new development has excited many experts in the field. Shilpa Rosenberry, the global retail and production strategist and director of the food industry consulting firm Daymon Worldwide, claims that edible plastics represent ‘a breakthrough in global consumption’, especially in regards to sustainable development and environmental awareness. One of the major problems with the new polymer development is the cost of production; biodegradable plastics cost more to produce and therefore present challenges for conventional marketing methods: will the edible wrappings be considered deluxe, green or organic products?
Innovations for the Future
Until recently, food developers and diet-conscious consumers were more concerned about the contents of the food rather than the packaging. Food additives and sugar, salt and fat content, along with whether ingredients were sustainably sourced from organic origins, and the implications of processed foods and genetically modified organisms, were all considerations for consumers. However, due to the modern awareness of sustainability, spurred on by a curiosity in the repercussions involved with waste disposal, there is a mounting interest in developing novel approaches to packaging. If the advancements that have been made in edible packaging become commercialized and accepted by consumers, then it is possible that the food wrappings could become a new trend. Indeed, edible packaging could revolutionize the food industry and encourage more people to ask questions about waste reduction, environmental protection, and consumer choice. Such a movement would ensure the next generation are also curious about their future and subsequently innovate designs that can help safeguard their surroundings.