The Future of Food Packaging

By Tim Sprinkle June 23, 2020 | 7 MIN READ

The Dirt

Who knew that plastic drinking straws could inspire so much passion? This trend reveals the power behind one small step in changing our ideas on food waste. But to be effective, we need to address the bigger picture of packaging. So, how do we continue to find compelling ways to protect our environment, eliminate food waste, and effectively package our food?

Global Food

The Future of Food Packaging

Trends like eliminating plastic straws feel like a big leap in bettering our world, but to be effective, we need to address the bigger picture of packaging. So, how do we continue to find compelling ways to protect our environment, eliminate food waste, and effectively package our food?

By Tim Sprinkle June 23, 2020 | 7 MIN READ

The Dirt

Who knew that plastic drinking straws could inspire so much passion? This trend reveals the power behind one small step in changing our ideas on food waste. But to be effective, we need to address the bigger picture of packaging. So, how do we continue to find compelling ways to protect our environment, eliminate food waste, and effectively package our food?

Paper or plastic? Until COVID, cities and municipalities were banning plastic bags, plastic straws, and plastic cups.  As dutiful citizens, we brought our canvas bags to the grocery store and used paper straws to drink our iced lattes. But now, studies show that our unwashed reusable bags have a 99% chance of harboring unwanted bacteria and 8% chance of E. coli. This also increases the likelihood that we’ll transfer these pathogens to our grocery carts and refrigerators.

So what is the solution? Plastic pollutes and canvas bags are not clean. So what new technologies will help us with producing packaging that is both sanitary and sustainable?

The Movement

Until 2018 or so, the thin drinking utensils that had long been ubiquitous at restaurants all over the world were easy to overlook. They were always available if you wanted one, and few people seemed to mind, or even think twice about using them.

But that was before many realized the damage that plastic drinking straws were causing to the world’s oceans. In fact, a widely-circulated video from 2015 showing rescuers trying to save a sea turtle that had a piece of plastic straw stuck in its mouth has been credited with helping to kick off a worldwide effort to ban their use, culminating in the #stopsucking movement aimed at addressing the estimated 400+ million plastic straws that researchers say are littering the world’s coastlines.

First, the state of California banned them in restaurants.

Then, Seattle became the first major U.S. city to ban plastic straws as well as plastic utensils.

And then corporations jumped on the bandwagon, with companies like Starbucks, Aramark, and American Airlines all vowing to stop offering plastic straws to their customers.

Even then-New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady got in on the act, showing off his new, reusable metal straw. Paper alternatives popped up in restaurants all over the country.

Suddenly, avoiding plastic straws was en vogue.

plastic, The Future of Food Packaging

Packaging in focus

But straws were just the beginning. In the years since, the debate over straws has led to additional conversations about all of the other plastic products that punctuate modern life.

In fact, plastic straws aren’t even the worst offenders in this group. Food wrappers account for about 31% of all plastic pollution, followed by plastic bottles and container caps at 15.5%, and plastic bags at 11.2%. Plastic straws and stirrers only account for 8.1%.

University of Georgia professor Dr. Jenna Jambeck has calculated that, as of 2010, nearly 8 million metric tons of plastic were ending up in the world’s oceans and coastlines each year. This is approximately 25% of the 35 million tons of plastic pollution produced globally every year.

According to a 2017 study out of the University of California, Santa Cruz, 91% of the plastic that we use – for straws, utensils, packaging and everything else – is not recycled.

As plastics break down in the ocean, they become harmful microplastics that are ingested by aquatic life, disrupting their development.

plastic, The Future of Food Packaging

This fact is leading a number of municipalities to ban the use of disposable plastic bags outright, with the state of New York adopting such a ban this year, following a similar ban in California from 2016. That ban has resulted in a 72% decrease in the number of plastic bags being recovered during cleanup efforts in the Golden State.

Even short of outright bans, some cities are having success with tax incentives. After Chicago imposed a $0.07 fee on plastic bags in 2017, usage in the city dropped by 40%, mirroring a similar drop-off in use in Washington state following its own $0.05 fee in 2010.

plastic, The Future of Food Packaging

Public opinion has even swung so far in favor of alternative packaging that actor Chris Pratt recently caused a stir on social media after appearing on Instagram holding a single-use plastic water bottle. The message: appearances matter when it comes to packaging these days.

Is it paper or plastic?

Plastic ends up in the ocean and is generally not recycled. But paper bags have their pros and cons, as well. While produced from a renewable source like timber, which also takes CO2 out of the air, producing paper bags generate approximately 4 times more water and take 10% more energy. Additionally, paper bags are heavier to transport –  transporting 2 million bags requires 7 trucks, while plastic bags only necessitate one truck. Clearly, this is a problem that extends throughout the food supply chain, and it’s about more than just plastic or paper.

Now with the new sanitary measures on coronavirus, cotton grocery bags can be filled with bacteria and must be washed after every use. And, because of how it’s made, it must be used 131 times to equal the environmental footprint of a plastic bag.

 It’s time for new alternatives!

The struggle for truly sustainable packaging

“When talking about sustainable packaging, it’s important to think about sourcing,” explains Nina Goodrich, Director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. “Where do the materials come from? If it’s a biopolymer, was it sustainably sourced? If it’s a fiber, is it certified or responsibly sourced? And if it’s post-consumer recycled material, that would count under sourcing, as well.”

The push right now across the industry, she says, is toward a better understanding of what’s in our packaging and the impact that it’s having on the world.

“We want products to be recyclable and recoverable, but we also want to manage the environmental carbon footprint of packaging,” Goodrich says. “So, we don’t want to over-package, but we also don’t want to under-package because food waste is such a huge contributor to climate change.” It’s really important that if we transition out of plastic into another package that we’re still taking packaging waste and food waste into consideration and not causing food waste to go up.”

According to some estimates, more than 30% of the food produced globally every year is wasted, with that figure jumping to more than 40% percent in the U.S. The World Resources Institute says that, if food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases behind China and the U.S., and by zeroing out food waste we could theoretically reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions by 11%.

This fact is driving innovations in food packaging.

plastic, The Future of Food Packaging

“Right now we’re seeing a big movement away from single-use plastics,” explains Victor Bell, the founder of Environmental Packaging International. “Also, people are looking at more technologies to use recycled content in their materials so they close the loop.”

At the same time, reuse models are coming back in a big way, he says.

Across industries including cosmetics, the cleaning industry, food, and more, Bell is seeing more use of refillable bottles and reusable packages that go beyond the metal and other bottles that individual users have begun carrying in recent years.

Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, for instance, recently pledged to reduce its reliance on single-use packaging, introducing reusable pint containers for its grocery store items. Nestlé, which is a founding partner and investor in TerraCycle’s Loop, a “subscription and home delivery service for foods and other products with reusable packaging,” later followed suit, offering Häagen-Dazs ice cream in sustainable packaging as well.

“But you’ve got to look at those supply chains carefully,” Bell says, “because the carbon footprint of any alternatives can be devastating. The problem is a lot of the big companies that are involved in these efforts – like Walmart, Stop & Shop, and Hannaford’s – are part of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy, so they’ve made a commitment that everything is going to be recyclable. That means there’s got to be infrastructure for it, but in the United States we have no infrastructure for handling those kinds of materials.”

In reality, the push for more sustainable, lower-impact packaging alternatives has taken a number of different forms, embracing existing materials for new uses as well as coming up with entirely new solutions.

Paper AND Plastic

“We’re celebrating our 10th anniversary this year, so we were the first company to offer a sustainable alternative to plastic water bottles,” says Rob Koenen, chief marketing officer of Boxed Water Is Better. “And what’s funny is the name has been kind of a blessing and a curse because it challenges the consumer to ask exactly that question – ‘why is boxed water better?’”

Koenen says he focuses on three numbers: 10, 9, and 700. That is, only 10% of plastic is being recycled right now, which means that 9 million tons of plastic are being released into the environment every year and that plastic sticks around for over 700 years.

If Christopher Columbus drank a bottle of water and threw it overboard when he landed in the New World, it would still be around today.

Boxed Water’s solution has been to marry the sustainable qualities of paper with the protective properties of a thin layer of plastic on the inside of the box, layering it in rather than blow molding it to minimize the ozone depletion impact of its production process.

plastic, The Future of Food PackagingAnd it’s almost infinitely scalable.

“Just look at Europe,” Keonen says. “Europe’s a hundred years ahead of us in sustainable packaging, and even they aren’t coming close to running into issues with timber supply. Our company is at 50% capacity and we’re already going to buy a new machine in the next six months because our demand is increasing that much, and we can totally keep up with demand.”

And Boxed Water isn’t the only company in this space anymore. Actor Jaden Smith recently launched a competitor called Just Water, and fellow actor Jason Momoa is canning water for his Ever & Ever brand.

Biodegradable materials

 “So, our company started in 2016 after one of the partners worked at a commercial shoot for one of their customers, and he saw the amount of plastic that was generated from just one meal for the whole crew,” says Ricardo Mulas Ochoa with E6PR, a company that has developed eco-friendly six-pack rings made from by-product waste and other compostable materials.

“By 2018, Saltwater Brewery became the first partner to launch our rings to their market on their beer, and now we have over 90 customers all over the world.”

Targeting the craft beer market initially, E6PR’s 100% biodegradable and compostable.

Beverage rings fit on the top of canned products to keep six-packs together for transport and sale. The company says that its product will degrade completely in less than 200 days.

plastic, The Future of Food PackagingThe rings are made from the fibrous material that is left out in wheat fields after harvest, which is typically either composted in the field, burned, or sold as cattle feed. It’s a byproduct of the food and beverage industry, that E6PR is using to develop packaging for those products down the line.

And it can be used for more than beer.

“The rings can hold pretty much any beverage that can be canned,” Ochoa says. “Right now the majority of the customers we’re working with are beer brewers, but we also have customers who make kombucha, who make wine, and more, so there is a lot of room for growth.”

And E6PR is just one example of a company pushing the boundaries of what can be used to package our foods. Potato Plastic won the James Dyson Award by eliminating food waste and providing nutrition for the soil. They mold plastic utensils out of potato starch using the unused ‘ugly’ potatoes which can biodegrade into the ground in two months.

CPG company Alter Eco recently took the step of switching out the packaging for coconut clusters from plastic laminated paper to recyclable cardboard, while Holy Lama Naturals out of the U.K. is now using palm leaves to package its soaps. Vetropack is delivering beverages in a new type of lightweight glass and Ecovative is even working on a sustainable alternative to styrofoam that’s made from mushrooms.

The Bottom Line

Where is the future of alternative packaging? No one knows for sure yet, but one thing is clear: public opinion in favor of non-plastics and other sustainable alternatives is snowballing, leading to innovations that will continue to change the face of the food supply chain. Emerging biodegradable technologies have promise in this important field of change.