Packaging: Here are some plant-based options for you
By Carol ZweepPackaging Sustainability Editor pick Plant-based packaging
Plant-based or bio-based packaging uses organic plant sources to make packaging material. The use of a renewable resource is a good alternative to non-renewable petroleum-based packaging, as petroleum-based plastics are made from crude oil using energy-intensive extraction processes. Offering plant-based packaging resonates with positive consumer perceptions of environmentally friendly packaging. Some plant-based packaging is also biodegradable.
Biodegradation describes the process of breaking material down into natural substances within a certain timeframe after disposal. When biodegradation occurs under different conditions, different terms are used, such as composting, anaerobic digestion, and biodegradation in soil and in marine water.
A variety of bio-based materials can be used for packaging. Cellulose is derived from cotton, trees, hemp, and wood pulp. It can be made into bag applications for dried fruits, biscuits, rice, dried beans, pasta, tea leaves, coffee beans, sweets, and herbs. Mushroom packaging can be made by mixing fungus sprouts or mycelia with seedlings or other residues from agriculture. Mycelium is lightweight and easy to mold. Its properties are similar to Styrofoam. Bagasse is a pulpy residue left over from crushed sugarcane stalks. It can be made into foodservice packaging. Coconut husk can be pressed and formed into packaging, which can often look like cardboard. Chitin is the polysaccharide found in the shells of shrimps and other crustaceans. Chitin with fibroin (an insoluble protein found in silkworms) makes a plastic-like material that can be used to develop a biodegradable alternative for food packaging. A biodegradable and edible product can be made from brown seaweed extract and calcium chloride to create a gel-like material. It can be used to replace plastic bottles with an edible water container.
Bioplastics are a type of plastic that is bio-based and biodegradable. Two examples of bioplastics are polylactic acid (PLA) and polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA). PLA is a type of polyester made from fermented starch from corn, cassava, maize, sugarcane, or sugar beet pulp. PHA is a polyester synthesized directly by fermentation of a carbon substrate inside a micro-organism. PLA and PHA are used as conventional plastic packaging alternatives. PLA is often used for plastic films, bottles, food and deli containers, salad boxes, coffee cups, and compostable cutlery. PHA is used for single-use packaging for foods, beverages, and consumer products.
Not all bio-based plastics are biodegradable. Bio-based plastics are defined as materials for which at least a portion of the material is produced from renewable raw materials. Common commodity plastics like polyethylene terephthalate, polyamide, and polypropylene have been manufactured from fermentation byproducts of biological feedstocks such as sugarcane, sugar beets, and corn. Although bio-based, these plastics are chemically identical to petrochemical-based plastics and therefore not biodegradable.
There are environmental benefits for using bio-based packaging. Bio-based packaging is made from renewable plant sources. Unlike petroleum-based materials, feedstocks from plant-based materials remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during their growing phase, thus reducing the carbon footprint of the material. Plant-based products can help reduce landfill waste by offering recycling and composability options. Plant-based alternatives to traditional plastics, along with improved collection infrastructure, can prevent litter from ending up in water bodies.
Bio-based packaging is under constant development with the objective of overcoming resource depletion and counteracting plastics pollution. Transparency about environmentally friendly packaging will allow consumers to make informed purchasing and disposal decisions. Package functionality and end-of-life disposal should be considered during the innovation process. New tech for the production of bio-based materials using urban, agricultural, and food waste as feedstock will establish a sustainable production value chain for the future design of bio-based packaging.
Carol Zweep is food consulting manager for NSF. Contact her at email@example.com.
This column was originally published in the November/December 2023 issue of Food in Canada.
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