The development of ‘bio-contributing’ naturally derived materials looks set to be a game-changer in packaging innovation. But there are still challenges ahead
Recent years have seen the packaging industry introduce a flurry of nature-derived innovations in sustainability – prawn-shell plastic bags, the repurposing of palm leaves, cellulose moulding, wood pulp cellophane, and so on. But such notions have their limitations: both in functionality and in just how fully recyclable they actually are.
Enter the next phase: packaging that uses natural processes to not only break down entirely, but that can put something back into the soil; that is, to produce a net ecological benefit. Welcome to the era of ‘bio-contributing’ packaging.
“We’re exploring more and more natural materials that can be used in expected ways, including packaging that’s edible – that worms and bacteria will feast on, to fertilise the next cycle of life,” explains Pierre Paslier, an ex-packaging engineer for L’Oréal and co-founder of packaging company Notpla. Notpla is an edible material made from brown seaweed, which grows up to a metre per day, without the need for freshwater or fertiliser, and which biodegrades completely in around a month.
So far it’s been used to create sachets suitable for containing water or condiments, with the company working on applying a layer of the material to cardboard (protective surfaces on cardboard are typically made of plastic), using the waste fibre from the seaweed to create a new form of cardboard and devising water-soluble packaging for products such as pasta. Crucially, using a natural source for the material means it’s compostable at home (rather than by ‘hot’ industrial composting).
Indeed, Amir Afshar, co-founder and chief product officer at startup Shellworks – founded in 2019 with the creation of Vivomer, a rigid, vegan material created from marine and soil micro-organisms – suggests that this new generation of materials are the first to be properly biodegradable. The term to date has often been applied to those materials that actually require a special environment in which to break down, energy-intensive industrial processes to do so, or which only break down to micro-plastics.
“So it’s another question whether at the chemical level that material is really gone or not,” says Afshar, whose UK-based company is now piloting Shellmer, an antimicrobial, flexible, water-soluble and naturally fertilising biopolymer extracted from seafood waste. “Compare that to the re-purposing of a natural polymer that breaks down into the constituents from whence it came. This is contributing back to nature in the way that, say, a fallen branch breaks down to become part of the mulch. It’s naturally, fully recyclable.”
Bio-contributing by nature
Retail companies have also been exploring how to produce packaging that bio-contributes as it degrades. Body-care brand Haeckels has recently introduced a bottle seal made of algae, which is kept moist until ready for use and seals as it dehydrates. The company is also experimenting with mycelium, sourced from the roots of mushrooms, which can be mixed with agricultural waste, moulded and dried to form lightweight and impact-resistant packaging.
Other examples include plantable packaging with embedded seeds, for Bloom Everlasting Chocolate; plantable wrapping paper such as Eden’s Paper; and cosmetic company Lush’s cork pots, the production of which sequesters 33 times their weight in carbon dioxide.
Jessica Vieira is vice-president of sustainability at US company Apeel, which in 2019 developed a plant-based, tasteless, odourless protective barrier – made from the same materials found in peels, pulp and seeds – to slow down the food spoiling process and maintain freshness for longer, reducing both food waste and packaging use. She argues that the ‘naturalness’ of the product is particularly reassuring to consumers.
“Looking to nature – which has already figured out how to recycle in a beautiful, efficient way – is the ultimate motivator in aiming to provide solutions [for packaging sustainability issues],” she says.
While the pace of innovation is impressive, there are challenges – not least in matters of speed and scale of production. Most of the innovations are coming not from major manufacturers but from small startups, which then have to sell the idea to a big player. “And they may be reticent to try this weird seaweed stuff,” as Notpla’s Paslier puts it. After all, many similar bio-materials were experimented with decades ago but failed to take hold, in part because the sustainability problem of plastic was less well understood.
And bio-contributing packaging is not without its limitations: mycelium-based packaging, for example, sometimes hailed as the most commercially viable option, is only suitable for dry goods. “Bio-contributing packaging still has a short lifespan too,” Paslier adds. “Our chemists are working on extending it, but push it too far and nature ceases to recognise the material and then bio-degrading doesn’t work.”
Price, for the moment, remains a challenge – mycelium-based packaging remains considerably more expensive than plastic – and aesthetics can be an issue for some brands. Communication will also likely prove an issue, and not just to encourage consumers to compost at home rather than send organic matter to landfill where it will give off methane.
“The developers of these kinds of [bio-neutral or bio-contributing] materials will need to make it clear what they are to the end-consumer and how to use them – we’ve worked hard to make sure our material doesn’t feel like plastic, for example, so that it’s not misunderstood and so mis-handled in recycling. It’s about how to make a clear distinction from plastics without giving the material that fibrous speckles eco-material look [that not all brands want].”
But demand is clearly there. Sainsbury’s, for example, aims to sell most of its fresh organic produce and own-brand ready-meals in maize-based home-compostable packaging. Asda and Tesco are moving to use Apeel’s protective layer on citrus fruits.
“We joke that we’re selling an invisible product that solves an invisible problem,” laughs Apeel’s Vieira. “But products using nature-based solutions typically make for win-win outcomes, not compromises. There’s a lot of excitement around this kind of innovation.”