A version of this story appears in the August 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Around tables strewn with Exacto knives, bowls, cutting boards, tape, funnels, and bags of hemp powder, mushroom parts, and sugar, a dozen graduate students from the packaging and industrial-design departments at Pratt Institute, in Brooklyn, New York, brainstormed.
Their brief? To create new forms of food packaging to replace the unsustainable designs upon which modern life seems to depend: single-use plastic beverage cups, lids, straws, and bottles.
Focusing on the long-lived detritus that typically accompanies take-out meals, the students baked and 3D-printed straws made of sugar and agar—a gelatinous substance derived from seaweed. They hand-shaped bowls from mycelium, the threadlike roots of mushrooms. One team designed sheets of black plastic that folded into take-out containers (seen in image above) and could be returned to a collection point, sanitized, and reused ad infinitum by a consortium of take-out chains. Another duo crafted an ingenious paperboard box with a fold-it-yourself fork/spoon combo that diners tear from a perforated edge (above). When lunch is over, everything gets pitched into a compost bin, which in an ideal world is, of course, never far away.
“We’re seeing a tremendous acceleration in the demand for packaging alternatives as the unintended consequences of plastics become more visible, both locally and globally,” says Kate Daly, of Closed Loop Partners, a social-impact investment fund that focuses on waste.
Of the 78 million metric tons of plastic packaging produced globally each year, a mere 14 percent is recycled. Lightweight and floatable, plastic that escapes collection flows into our oceans—nine million tons annually—most of it from developing nations that lack the infrastructure to manage it. The problem is expected to get worse as those nations grow richer and inevitably start consuming more packaged foods, and as many others in an increasingly convenience-obsessed world continue to purchase meal-kit and grocery services—which generate considerable packaging—and take-out foods.
More conscientious recycling would be a boon, but it’s no panacea. Recycling requires energy, water, and the transport of materials. Most recycled plastics get shredded, melted, and reformed into goods—like lumber, fleece, or carpeting—still eventually bound for landfills. Manufacturers continue to make bottles and shrink-wraps ever thinner, but the fact remains: plastics are made from nonrenewable resources, either oil or natural gas, and most never see a second life.
But plastic is quite good at what it does, which makes replacing it so devilishly difficult. Plastic protects food over long journeys, guarding it against pressure, humidity, light, and the bacteria that accelerate rot. (Shrink-wrap a cucumber in polyethylene and its shelf life stretches from three days to 14. The wrap, however, may last more than a century.) Plastic is strong and clear, enabling consumers to see what they’re buying. And the feedstock for plastic is widely available and incredibly cheap. At least for now.
The Birth of Throwaway Culture
Soon after the turn of the 20th century, food companies began using a flexible wrap called cellophane, made from plants. Chemists later imitated this bio-based polymer with polyvinyl chloride and later less toxic polyethylene, creating Saran Wrap. While cellophane was compostable, the oil-based films—and the rigid plastic containers that followed—were not. The stage was set for a throwaway future.
In the 1970s, Capri Sun began pouring its juice drinks into gusseted pouches that weighed less than a plastic bottle of equivalent volume. Made of melded, ultrathin layers of plastic and aluminum foil, the pouches could be shipped flat—saving room—and they kept food fresh without refrigeration. Today the pouch is ubiquitous, holding everything from tuna to tomato paste, pet food to pickles. It’s estimated that Americans go through 92 billion pouches a year. But their end-of-life prospects are bleak. Pouches, it turns out, are kryptonite to recycling companies, which can’t separate their heterogenous layers.
A Continuous Cycle
Often working together, designers, engineers, biologists, investors, and recyclers are now striving to develop packaging that falls within the mandates of what’s known as the circular economy.
It’s a design framework that eschews the linear “take, make, waste” model that leads from oil well to refinery, manufacturing plant to supermarket, consumer to landfill. Instead, it envisions supply chains that continuously cycle old materials back into high-value products—with an emphasis on long-lasting design, remanufacturing, and reuse—and business models that favor sharing and leasing (washing machines, cars), rather than ownership. In the circular economy, material goods cycle in two separate loops. One recovers technical nutrients—like metals, minerals, and polymers—for reuse, and the other returns biological materials—fiber, wood—to nature through composting programs, or it converts them, through anaerobic digestion, to carbon-neutral energy.
To imagine the packages of the future, many designers are looking to the past for inspiration. RISE, a Swedish research institute, has prototyped a nearly flat cellulose-based container that soup makers, for example, could fill with freeze-dried vegetables and spices. As diners add hot water, the container’s origami folds stretch into a full-fledged, and fully compostable, bowl. The Pratt students shaped a bowl from mycelium, which grows in a week and composts in less than a month.
Harvard University’s Wyss Institute created “shrilk,” a low-cost, clear plastic that’s completely compostable. Made of chitosan, derived from shrimp shells, and a silk protein derived from insects, shrilk can be used to make film or rigid shapes. But it hasn’t yet found its way into food packaging, alas, because it requires manufacturers to tweak their machines.
Of course, a compostable future depends upon universal access to—and consumer participation in—municipal compost systems, which collect organic materials for their conversion to fertilizer or energy. Hundreds of municipalities in the EU, Canada, and the U.S. are moving in this direction, but setting up a system can present a chicken-and-egg problem. In New York City, for example, the volume of available material far exceeds the capacity of nearby processors. But without a guarantee of that stream, investors are reluctant to build facilities.
And then there’s the problem of human nature. Fred Skeberg, a Swedish product developer and founder of the food and design website Ateriet, once found himself at a music festival where vendors served food on “edible” corn starch-based plates, meant to be tossed into compost bins. But people assumed their bowls and plates would disappear in nature, Skeberg says, “and they threw it everywhere. So that backfired.” As the United Nations soberly noted in a report, “Labelling a product as biodegradable may be seen as a technical fix that removes responsibility from the individual.”
Until systems and people are in sync, a great deal of compostable packaging will end up in landfills, where it can generate greenhouse gases. If compostables mistakenly land in recycling plants—many plant-based plastics resemble their oil-based cousins—they’re considered a contaminant. And if they drift into the ocean? Compostable plastics are designed to degrade at temperatures around 135°F and with exposure to ultraviolet light. Since degradables are heavier than oil-based plastics, they are likely to sink and linger for many years.
A Better Plastic?
Considering these challenges, some designers prefer to stick with plastics, since recycling systems are, in the developed world at least, already established. More than thirty different plastics are currently used in packaging, but some innovators are on the hunt for a single polymer group, a super-plastic that meets a multitude of performance requirements, is affordable for manufacturers, demands few changes in machinery, is widely accepted by municipal recycling systems, and easily converted into new packaging. But so far this product remains elusive.
Meanwhile, some designers are intent on eliminating disposable packaging altogether. Consider the plastic straw: Starbucks committed to phasing it out by 2020, in favor of an elongated sipping spout on a lid. The new lid will weigh more than the old, but a larger chunk of plastic is more likely to make it through a recycling plant.
The same idea—doing without—could apply to pasta, commonly packaged in a recyclable paperboard box fronted by a nonrecyclable plastic window. “Just because materials exist, you don’t have to add them,” says Dayna Baumeister, cofounder of the consultancy Biomimicry 3.8. “Why can’t we accept a photo of the pasta, as we do with dry cereal, and get rid of the window?”
Or perhaps the entire package? The U.S. company MonoSol produces a range of transparent ethylene-based polymers that dissolve in water. Most commonly used for dishwasher or laundry pods, the polymer can also be safely used to contain food, according to European and U.S. regulators, and has no effect on smell, texture, or taste (unless flavorings are added). The food-service industry is already using melt-away packaging: MonoSol envisions a future where retail portions of hot cocoa, oatmeal, rice, pasta, or other foods cooked with hot water are commonplace.
Similarly, the Swedish design studio Tomorrow Machine developed a line of food packaging, dubbed “This Too Shall Pass,” that includes a small bottle of cooking oil made from caramelized sugar coated with wax. The bottle is cracked like an egg to release the oil, and the wax shell can be composted (but don’t hold your breath: it takes years for wax to break down). For refrigerated liquids, the firm designed a pouch from seaweed, claiming it will “wither at the same rate as its contents.” For rice and other dry goods, it fashioned a pyramid-shaped package made of colored beeswax, to be peeled open like an orange. The designs attracted a great deal of attention for their beauty and hopefulness, but they remain, at this point, merely concepts.
As part of his “Disappearing Package” thesis project, New York-based designer Aaron Mickelson eliminated the outer container and plastic shrink wrap of boxed tea bags by impermanently gluing the bags into an accordion-style book. The user tears off one tea bag at a time, and the book eventually shrinks to nothing.
Loliware, based in the U.S., makes FDA-approved edible (and therefore compostable) cups from seaweed mixed with organic sweeteners, flavors, and colorants. Containing 135 calories each can hold cold or room-temperature drinks, and cost a dollar apiece. Like ice cream cones, they come with a paper sleeve, “to make the user comfortable,” says Chelsea Briganti, Loliware’s cofounder. The company also makes a kelp-based edible straw. In talks with major food and beverage retailers, Loliware is rapidly scaling up, with plans to lower its price and replace a billion plastic straws a year.
The Consumer Test
Inspired by the way nature separates insides from outsides—think grape skins—scientists are experimenting with edible membranes to contain liquids. The startup Skipping Rocks Lab created a package-free swig of water, dubbed Ooho, by dipping ice balls into extracts of plants and brown seaweed, which form a water-tight membrane. The consumer bites the ball, releasing a few swallows of cold water, then swallows the membrane itself. The balls will be produced by a compact machine at their point of sale, eliminating the need for cups.
Harvard University’s David Edwards created his own version of edible skin, called WikiCells, using fruit and other organic molecules to coat single-bite balls of soft, perishable products. Stonyfield used the technology on its Frozen Yogurt Pearls, which debuted in 2014, but sales were tepid and the pearls disappeared. “It was a great attempt,” Stonyfield CEO Gary Hirshberg says. “But consumers found grabbing an unwrapped product incomprehensible, even though they could wash it.” (The company is experimenting now with bamboo-based yogurt cups, which degrade in backyard compost piles, an advance over materials that compost only in industrial facilities.)
Today, WikiCells can be found encircling PerfectlyFree fruit snacks. But consumers don’t pluck these products from bulk containers: the snacks come in nonrecyclable plastic pouches or trays. “We have tried some products with a very minimalist packaging design,” says Marty Kolewe, director of research and development at IncredibleFoods, which owns PerfectlyFree, “but it turns out that consumers—and also the business infrastructure surrounding food distribution—is a ways off from accepting truly package-less products.”
The Waste of Convenience
Ultra-packaged meal-kit delivery services, which ship ingredients and recipes for a single meal, are a $1.2 billion market that some analysts expect to more than quadruple by 2023. But it’s accompanied by mountains of non-recyclable or hard-to-recycle ice packs, bubble film, and Styrofoam packaging.
A three-year-old company called Temperpack has responded to one part of this waste challenge with a completely recyclable insulated shipping box that eliminates the need for expanded polystyrene packing peanuts, which are made from oil and gas and aren’t welcome in recycling plants.
How does the Temperpack—which is used by the nation’s largest meal-kit company—keep a camembert from getting squished or from melting? Its layers of Kraft paper are stuffed with Climacell, a bio-based foam that melts to cellulosic fiber, alongside the box itself, inside a pulping plant. According to Temperpack, manufacturing Climacell foam generates one tenth the greenhouse gases generated by making polystyrene peanuts. But an enormous amount of nonrecyclable waste remains: one industry investigation of three different mail-order meals revealed a total of 72 plastic packages, of which just 23 could be recycled.
While designers and psychologists struggle to resolve these issues, governments can also institute policies to reduce packaging waste, such as imposing higher taxes on fossil fuels used to make single-use plastics. They can enact minimum recycled-content laws, which require manufacturers to make new stuff from old, and require deposits on packaging, to ensure more of it is recovered for reuse. And, of course, they can ban single-use plastics—including bags, straws, and cups.
Some retailers are already on it: Ekoplaza, a supermarket in the Netherlands, devotes an aisle to more than 700 “plastic-free” offerings, wrapped or contained in cardboard, metal, glass or certified compostable plastic. And the British retailer Iceland plans to eliminate plastic from all its own-branded products within five years, in favor of returnable glass bottles, paper and pulp trays, and plastics, like cellulose, that are compostable.
Some critics say a far better solution would be challenging individuals to adopt a radically different model of consumption: one that doesn’t involve any single-use packaging.
MIWA, a Czech packaging and delivery system that won Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Circular Design Challenge, seems to fulfill this mandate. After ordering food using the MIWA app, producers and wholesalers place their items– whether cookies, chopped liver, or celery—in durable, reusable containers and capsules, then deliver them to nearby stores or consumers’ homes. When the capsules are empty, MIWA collects, sanitizes, and returns them to producers who refill them.
MIWA is, so far, a thought experiment, but it points to solutions already in play today: bringing washable bags and jars to shops that sell bulk foods or are willing to slice provolone and salami into your containers; shopping at farmers markets for naked cucumbers; buying beer in refillable growlers; and eschewing convenience foods wherever possible.
“Technology isn’t going to get us out of our waste conundrum,” says Dayna Baumeister. “Human psychology has to change. At some point, you just have to say enough is enough.”
This article originated as part of a sponsored Future of Food series.