The majority of packaged foods and other products are wrapped in some kind of plastic, which eventually becomes non-recyclable and non-biodegradable waste in landfills. To top off the negative environmental impact of this type of packaging, some plastics could also be releasing harmful chemicals into the things they cover.
To combat the production of wasteful plastic packaging and the bad implications that come with it, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and other groups are developing sustainable alternatives. Some of them are even edible. Below are # new products that could begin to replace plastic packaging.
USDA researchers are working on an eco-friendly packaging film made of casein, a derivative of milk protein. Though the researchers are still trying to perfect this option, they believe casein-based packaging could be found on shelves in as little as a year from now.
Casein-Based films have the following benefits:
- Protein-based films block oxygen 500 times better than plastics, which helps prevent food spoilage and waste. It has smaller pores and thus protects food better than the starch-based edible packaging that’s already on the market.
- Casein is both biodegradable and edible.
- Citrus pectin makes the packaging even stronger and more resistant to heat and humidity.
- While it is not as stretchy, the casein-based wrap looks similar to a plastic wrap.
- Vitamins and other nutrients could eventually be added.
The casein-based material is not limited to making plastic-like wrap and bags. It can also be sprayed directly on food to create a moisture-resistant barrier, keeping crunchy food from softening over time. The protein could also be used as a safe and biodegradable way to cover food boxes to prevent grease stains and leakage.
Wood Fiber Pulp
Earthcycle, a line of products by Canadian manufacturer CKF Inc., is made of pulp that comes from natural wood fibers. These packaging products, which include pulp trays, plates and clamshell hinged-lid containers have the following advantages:
- The pulp-based packaging is U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) compliant for food-grade packaging.
- The products are certified compostable.
- Derived from trees, the products are also recyclable.
These biodegradable packaging options are particularly useful for fresh produce, as Earthcycle products are suitable for high-moisture environments.
CKF stands by its commitment to be a sustainable manufacturer. The company is an active participant in North American stewardship programs that aim to increase recycling rates of its products.
Seventy-five percent of the packaging solution developed by the European project BIO4MAP is made from renewable resources. Layers of various bioplastics including polylactic acid (PLA), polyvinyl alcohol (PVOH) and biodegradable adhesives, combined with an olive leaf-derived wax coating, make a strong and protective packaging solution.
According to developers, the bioplastic packaging touts the following benefits:
- The material helps protect its contents from oxygen and humidity, which can accelerate spoilage.
- The bioplastic is largely derived from renewable resources material, reducing the carbon footprint associated with its manufacture.
- It’s both recyclable and biodegradable.
The olive-derived wax coating covers the packaging’s external layer to improve the PLA’s flexibility while acting as a water vapor barrier. The finished product, which was announced in April 2016, could greatly increase the shelf life of perishables like fresh pasta and cheese.
Only five to ten percent of used plastics are actually recovered. About half is tossed in landfills. While some plastics that are recycled are successfully remade into new products, sadly, a staggering proportion of them are polluting the planet.
These and other innovative alternatives to plastic packaging offer an intriguing solution to the world’s plastic problem. By replacing non-biodegradable wraps, bags and packaging with compostable, recyclable and even edible materials, people can begin to stop the huge environmental and health impacts plastics have caused for decades.