Anyone who has walked along a beach and seen degraded plastic packaging washed up on the shore realises we need new, smarter materials if we’re not to swamp our oceans or stuff-up our landfill.
Global plastic production has mushroomed from 15 million tonnes in 1964 to 311 million tonnes just two years ago. This is expected to double in the decades ahead. In fact, by weight there could potentially be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050, according to a report from the Word Economic Forum.
“A substantial share of plastic packaging is uneconomical to recover, reuse or recycle,” explains Rob Opsomer, who leads the New Plastics Economy at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. “There are now many new materials with a large range of properties that make them interesting alternatives to some currently unrecycled materials.”
Bioplastics have specifically come to the fore as businesses rethink packaging, but they are yet to develop any single source into a widely used alternative due to higher production costs. Some new materials are based on plant, even algae, fungi or animal products, while others are being created from renewable resources.
There are now many new materials with a large range of properties that make them interesting alternatives to some currently unrecycled materials
“I think we will see a lot more cellulose-based materials going forwards,” says Anna Glansén, a designer from Tomorrow Machine, a Stockholm-based studio specialising in novel packaging. “This type of packaging is often made from wood, but now we also see more cellulose coming from algae.”
Due to the high volume and fast turnover of food and beverage, beauty and health, as well as household goods, there are significant opportunities for new packaging materials in these sectors. Fashion, hygiene and electronics are also potential markets.
Take IKEA for example, it has been looking into packaging grown from mushrooms. The product is being developed by an innovative US company called Ecovative, which feeds fungi with agricultural waste. While Colombian designers have produced packaging from discarded banana stem fibre and at the Women’s University in Seoul, South Korea, they’ve been looking into a food-wrap film made from trout skin.
The current issue is that 95 per cent of plastic packaging has only a short one-use life cycle. It’s used and thrown away. This results in a loss to the global economy of more than $80 billion a year, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
“One of the biggest challenges is that manufactures are very comfortable producing packaging using ‘old’ materials,” explains Ms Glansén, whose company has created rice packaged in biodegradable beeswax and olive oil encased in caramelised sugar – you crack the container like an egg on the side of your saucepan.
There are many cases of disruptive innovation in packaging, yet these new materials still need to perform to the same or better standards, quality and finish than our traditional packaging such as plastic, paper and glass, as well as be accepted across industries and consumers globally.
“Disruptive materials are sometimes not necessarily more expensive or more complicated to produce, but there is always a big initial cost when you develop new products and we are at that stage right now,” says Ms Glansén.
Most new packaging is also produced in tiny volumes compared with our common fossil-fuel sources; therefore issues associated with economies of scale kick in. New materials can sometimes be uncompetitive substitutes in the mass market, only good for particular applications.
“It takes a long time for new materials to get established in the packaging market,” says Mr Opsomer. “Polylactic acid is considered a ‘new’ polymer, but it has been around for decades and is currently produced in several hundreds of thousands of tonnes. But this is still just a fraction of the main materials market in plastic packaging.”
Certainly design is seen as a big part of the equation. “We need to re-envision the way we make packaging, from the materials we use to what happens to them at the end of their useful life,” says Lewis Perkins, president of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute.
This is the reason why the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has an ambitious £10-million three-year New Plastics Economy initiative to redesign and reimagine packaging, to replace plastics with sustainable new materials and to minimise single-use products.
Kosuke Araki, an award-winning Tokyo-based designer, is experiencing all these challenges as he tries to scale up packaging made from agar, a jelly-like substance, obtained from algae and red algae fibre waste.
“Plastic is not often consumed or treated as a precious material, but it absolutely is. If agar-derived plastic materials could be used, there will be much less pollution, since the raw material is harvested from the sea,” explains Mr Araki.
The composite can be used as a sheet for wrapping flowers, to cushion wine bottles or moulded to make boxes. After it’s used the packaging can condition your garden soil. “It improves water retention and the fibre waste also acts as a fertiliser,” he says.
It’s these kinds of new materials that industry and consumers are looking to. But there’s still a long way to go to get them produced on an industrial scale and on to the world market.