Brands and entrepreneurs are constantly looking for ways to differentiate themselves from their competitors in crowded marketplaces. And one of the best ways of doing this is to use custom packaging.
But there’s a problem. Brands want packaging that protects food and delivers it into the hands of consumers sustainably. So far, that goal has proven elusive.
Until recently, the vast bulk of packaging was made of plastic. It was cheap, safe, perfect for the supply chain, and kept food fresh. It was easy to work with, highly printable, and firms could modify it to improve the freshness of products (such as adding a layer of foil to the interior).
However, the demands on food-safe flexible packaging are growing all the time. Brands want higher-performance, more malleable plastics with compostability. They also want the price of biomaterials to come down. And they want to increase the consumer recycling options, all while retaining their brand identity. These are tremendous challenges indeed!
According to data from the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, the world uses more than 78 million metric tons of plastic every year. However, it only recycles 14 percent of it. The rest goes into landfills, or, worse, yet, the ocean.
In this post, we take a look at some of the most innovative, sustainable, and flexible food packaging ideas out there. Some of these are in the earliest stages while others are already in circulation.
Disappearing Outer Packaging
Twinings Tea Bags - a major tea bag brand in Europe - saw a problem with its existing packaging. Under the old design, it placed tea bags inside foil containers inside a larger plastic-lined box, generating about 15 grams of paper waste and 2 grams of plastic waste per sale.
Designers weren’t happy with this, so they looked to see if there was a way of getting rid of the plasticated outer packaging altogether while retaining the brand’s identity. The solution was to create an accordion-style pack with perforated cardboard sections for each teabag. Initially, the product looks a bit like a brick with folds in it. But as the customer uses it, it disappears, leaving no outer packaging at all. Consumers would simply tear off tea bags one at a time until nothing of the outer packaging remained.
The “disappearing packaging” concept does require some packaging to contain the food. But it helps to reduce waste and remove the need for outer packaging altogether, saving on materials.
Packaging That Dissolves In Water
While not suitable for all food products, some companies are trying to build plastic-like packaging products that dissolve in water over time. These innovators want to reduce the impact of plastic in the ocean, not by collecting it, but by changing its properties at the source.
MonoSol, for instance, has an ethylene-based food packaging in the works that dissolves in water - similar to the plastic found in dishwasher tabs. According to European and US Regulators, it can safely contain all types of food, despite its chemical constituents. Following the application of heat, the plastic breaks down into chemicals that have no effect on taste, texture, or smell and don’t harm the human body. MonoSol sees a future where all sorts of different types of foods, such as rice, pasta, hot cocoa, and oatmeal all rely on melt-away packaging.
Using Nature’s Packaging
Instead of looking to science for answers, some packaging brands are asking whether they can pinch existing ideas from nature.
A company called VPZ, for instance, is trying to make netting for citrus products made of biodegradable and compostable beech-tree pulp.
Another startup called NotPLA is trying to emulate the way nature creates barriers between the inside and the outside of plants (like how fruits protect their internal pulp) to get rid of the plastic bottle. It’s using various species of seaweed to create a membrane-like pouch that people can use for water on the go. The company’s fabrication process begins with dipping ice balls into plant mush. The cold of the ice leads to chemical reactions that eventually cause the seaweed to form a water-tight membrane. When the ice melts, the water stays inside the pouch until the consumer drinks it.
Swedish studio Tomorrow Machine developed some design concepts under the moniker “This too shall pass” when it saw how much longer packaging lasted than the food it contained.
The company, for instance, now has a printable oil packaging made of a caramelized sugar shell, coated in wax to protect it from moisture. To access the oil, you simply crack the shell and pour. Then, once finished, the sugar dissolves in water.
Tomorrow Machine also developed a biodegradable product for water-based products. Its smoothie packet, for instance, is made entirely of gel of agar-agar - a type of seaweed. The lifetime of the package is limited but can house juices, smoothies, and similar drinks for over a week - plenty of time for distribution.
Rapid Degradation Plastics
Other companies are taking existing plastics and looking for ways to make them break down in the ground faster. The goal is to provide consumers with all the convenience they currently enjoy, but with none of the environmental downsides.
BioGone Plastics is a leader in this movement. It sees the problem as follows: when consumers throw away plastics, they break down into thousands of tiny pieces. These fragments then make their way throughout the environment, harming natural ecosystems.
BioGone Plastics, however, says that its packaging has special chemistry that allows microbes in the soil to naturally break down the plastic, chew it up, and eliminate it from the environment. Hence, it doesn’t require a special, commercial composting facility, and, importantly, it won’t fragment. It’ll just disappear naturally.
Solving the food industry’s packaging problems isn’t going to be easy. However, so long as brands educate consumers about new types of packaging, more sustainable alternatives will naturally emerge.
Currently, customers can’t quite process the idea of plastic packaging being edible or wholly degradable in the ground. But solutions do exist in 2021, and they could make the future a better place.
Contact us today to request a quote or call us 407-734-7444 to learn more about our food safe flexible packaging services!