A man picks up an enclosed burger and promptly bites straight through, wrapping and all. A bag of coffee granules is placed into a cup of water and simply stirred away. Seasoning sachets are put on top of instant noodles and disappear as hot water is poured upon them. These scenes are from a demonstration video of an Indonesian company Evoware, which uses seaweed to create edible packaging. The hope is that by combining modern technology with biological materials, new packaging can lead to a significant reduction in plastic waste. As companies and consumers become increasingly environmentally conscious, this concept of edible packaging is rapidly gaining momentum. But what is edible packaging, and how effective can it be in reducing plastic waste?
Edible packaging is, as the name suggests, the idea of creating safe-to-eat packaging for food products. An easy way to conceptualize it is to think of a sausage casing, which contains the sausage but is also edible itself. Edible packaging does not aim to add flavor; rather, like a sausage casing, an ideal piece of edible packaging will help preserve the food without impacting the taste much. Edible packaging companies these days mostly use carbohydrates like seaweed and potatoes, though some also use proteins such as casein from milk. A wide range of products have been proposed to be made with edible materials, from the aforementioned wrappers and sachets to cutlery and water bottles. All of these materials are safe for human consumption and easily biodegradable, meaning that even if they are not eaten they have a negligible impact on the environment.
In recent years edible packaging has become more prevalent. One high-profile example is a product called Ooho, a small capsule for storing liquids that can be eaten or biodegrades within 4-6 weeks. Over 36,000 Oohos were used last year in the London Marathon, filled with energy drink Lucozade Sport. Ooho’s manufacturer Notpla has also recently received funding from the UK Government, whose Natural Environment Research Council for UK Research and Innovation expressed the optimism associated with edible packaging by stating: “The funding of this project along with other programmes, will help establish the UK as a leading innovator in smart and sustainable plastic packaging solutions”. Experts within the food industry have predicted that there is a growing base of eco-conscious consumers, as evidenced by the explosion in sales and accessibility of plant-based meat, that will similarly propel edible packaging forwards in the future.
The potential benefits of edible packaging propagation are enormous. Plastics account for almost 40% of food packaging in the US, and only a small fraction of that ends up being recycled. Plastic does not biodegrade easily, and is often broken down into microplastics, which are harmful to humans and wildlife. Hundreds of millions of tons of plastic waste are expected to be put into the environment in the next two decades. In the US, the current COVID-19 pandemic has only increased our reliance on plastics, particularly single use plastics. Edible packaging can drastically reduce plastic usage in many of these cases, in everyday ways like replacing sauce packets in takeout food. Other industries, like aviation and camping, will also likely be beneficiaries of the new technology in its initial stages.
However, the impact on developing countries could be even more profound. Many developing countries often lack the infrastructure to recycle effectively, and as these countries grow richer they are expected to consume more packaged foods. Reducing the amount that needs to be recycled could go a long way to reducing the burden on waste infrastructure. On top of this, many companies, like Indonesian-based Evoware, rely on local farmers in developing countries to provide the raw materials for making this edible packaging, providing a potential source of steady income in the future.
Despite the technology’s promise, there are still outstanding questions. One of the major reasons for packaging is to protect food from outside factors, such as germs and environmental factors. If people then eat packaging that has been exposed to contaminants, their risk of getting sick increases. Therefore even if there is edible packaging there must be some kind of other packaging, like a bag, to protect the food from outside elements. An example would be ice cream cones, which are edible containers of ice cream, but still need to be stored somewhere unexposed. Excessive heat or humidity can also impact the stability of packaging, making transport and long-term storage problematic. A report by New Food Magazine, however, argues that these factors can be limited by combining proteins and lipids in different ways, suggesting that as more advanced methods are developed these problems can be mitigated.
Another problem is the difficulty in changing consumer habits. Proliferation of edible packaging would require people to drastically rethink how they act. Consider the example of eating a burger in its wrapping. After years of not eating wrappers, many may have a hard time suddenly eating them. Convincing people of the necessity of eating edible packaging may also be hard. One proposed solution is to tout the nutritional benefit of some of this packaging. Because much of this packaging is plant-based, products are often high in fiber, vitamin, and minerals. By emphasizing this fact, more people may be encouraged to eat the packaging.
Another problem is, as expressed by the United Nations, the concern that labelling biodegradable products “removes responsibility from the individual”. In one example a music festival served food on edible corn-starch plates, and upon hearing that the plates were biodegradable, people just threw the plates everywhere rather than in compost bins. Similar to the efforts to encourage people to recycle, a mass public education movement is likely required if edible packaging is to be as sustainable as possible.
A final barrier is cost. The company Loliware is a high profile example of how cost remains an issue for the edible packaging industry. Loliware made a splash in 2015 with its idea for an edible cup, even appearing on television show Shark Tank. Loliware cups were made of a gelatin called agar, and came in at a cost of $12 for four cups, several times more expensive than other single-use cups. Because so many of the materials edible packaging companies use are rare or difficult to scale, product prices continue to hold back the industry. Loliware has since abandoned the edible cup idea and moved on to making environmentally friendly, not meant-to-be-eaten straws, illustrating the difficulties involved. However, some have suggested that as landfills fill up and the cost of waste disposal rises, and as technology improves and demand increases, solutions like edible packaging that reduce the amount of waste could prove to be more economically viable.
Edible packaging is an idea that may sound strange in many ways. It is also a technology that has questions to answer regarding safety, practicality, acceptability, and cost, and we are not yet at the stage where it is widespread in society. However, the potential that edible packaging has to help tackle plastic waste problems, the creativity involved in the idea, and the possible benefits for development make the technology hugely exciting. If in the future some of the questions can be answered, as seems eminently possible, then who knows? Perhaps soon we’ll find ourselves having our cake and eating the plate too.
Image: Photo via Flickr
Ahmed, Saef. “Edible Food Packaging.” Sustainability on the UT Campus: A Symposium. Accessed November 17, 2020. https://sustainability.utexas.edu/sites/sustainability.utexas.edu/files/EdibleFoodPackaging_SaefAhmad.pdf.
Carrington, Damian. “US and UK Citizens Are World’s Biggest Sources of Plastic Waste – Study.” The Guardian, October 30, 2020, sec. Environment. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/oct/30/us-and-uk-citizens-are-worlds-biggest-sources-of-plastic-waste-study.
Rosenfeld, Laura. “Where To Buy Loliware From ‘Shark Tank’ So Your Cups Can Taste As Good As They Look.” Bustle, October 2, 2015. https://www.bustle.com/articles/113925-where-to-buy-loliware-from-shark-tank-so-your-cups-can-taste-as-good-as-they.
Royte, Elizabeth. “Eat Your Food, and the Package Too.” National Geographic Magazine, September 14, 2018. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/future-of-food/food-packaging-plastics-recycle-solutions/.