Edible packaging provides sustainable alternatives to plastic

Humans have created 8.3 billion metric tons of plastics since large-scale production of synthetic materials began in the early 1950s, with most of it now residing in landfills or the natural environment. Seeking a solution, some companies are putting their money where their mouth is, experimenting with packaging made from edible (though not necessarily appetizing) materials that offer more sustainable options.


Green Island, New York-based design firm Ecovative wants companies to move away from plastic foams like expanded polystyrene (a.k.a. Styrofoam) by switching to its earth-friendly alternative, MycoFoam, which is made from mycelium fungus and can be molded into a variety of shapes. The protective mushroom-based packaging is already used by companies like Dell and Stanhope Seta, and Ecovative is also developing mushroom-based insulation, acoustics, core materials, and aquatic products like surfboards. The company also offers a GIY (grow-it-yourself) program for people to create their own projects and products with its raw material.


According to the World Economic Forum, it is estimated that there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2020. More than one million marine animals die from plastic waste every year, and Saltwater Brewery in Delray Beach, Florida wants to help combat this crisis with its edible six-pack rings, which are derived from barley and wheat remnants from the brewing process. The edible rings are completely biodegradable and compostable, and the company plans to use them on all 400,000 cans of beer it produces each month.


Not only does plastic wrapping create non-recyclable, non-biodegradable waste, but thin plastic films are not great at preventing food spoilage. To create a better solution, scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture led by Peggy Tomasula are developing an environmentally friendly film made of the milk protein casein. These casein-based films are up to 500 times better than plastics at keeping oxygen away from food, and, because they are derived from milk, are biodegradable, sustainable, and edible. The milk-based packaging also has smaller pores than alternatives derived from starch, and thus is better at preventing food spoilage.