Climate Action

How mushrooms and microorganisms could transform food packaging

A bio-degradable wine shipping container made by Ecovative Design using a novel biomaterial grown from agricultural waste using mycelium. Image: Flickr

Chiara Cecchini
Director of Business Development, Savor
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SDG 13: Climate Action

This article is part of: Forum COP26 Live
  • Too few companies take any tangible action on making packaging more sustainable simply because it’s relatively hard.
  • Being able to ensure freshness, convenience and food safety, while meeting esthetical standards and minimizing the ecological footprint, is not an easy challenge.
  • Some companies are trying to capture this growth in demand for innovative packaging solutions using cutting-edge technology or never-before-seen ingredient combinations.

As consumers demand more environmentally friendly practices from companies and brands, sustainability has become a buzzword in the food industry. The most common pledges go from reducing food waste, supporting regenerative farming, cutting animal proteins consumption, and more generally reducing carbon emissions. Yet, still too rarely do companies actually take any tangible action on packaging. Why? Well, because it’s very hard.

Have you read?

Being able to ensure freshness, convenience and food safety, while meeting esthetical standards and minimizing the ecological footprint, is not an easy challenge. However, sustainable packaging solutions are expected to become increasingly important over the next few years, as consumers’ preferences progressively shift towards products that are planet-friendly at an all-around level.

With two-thirds (67%) of consumers considering it important that the products they buy are in recyclable packaging, and the same percentage consider themselves environmentally aware, the global sustainable packaging market is projected to reach $470 billion by 2027, up from an estimated $305 billion in 2020.

Indeed, there are some companies trying to capture this growth opportunity as early innovators, using cutting-edge technologies or never-before-seen ingredient combinations to bring to the market innovative packaging solutions.

Following are five surprising solutions and strategies to tackle this problem. We hope this could serve as a source of inspiration for food industry experts and consumers willing to make a full-on sustainable shift in their operations.

From mushrooms and fungi to mycelium

Mycelium is an innovative packaging material very similar to polystyrene foam. Lightweight, easy to mould, and easy to produce – all favourable traits for materials used in packaging – mycelium is cost-competitive with polystyrene foam, making its most common use as a replacement where Styrofoam is typically used, e.g. to protect glass bottles and jars for shipment.

Image: Flickr

Obtained through the application of binding agents and branching fungi filaments to any kind of agricultural waste, this cutting-edge bio-engineering process allows the material to reach its full growth and be ready to use in about a week, turning waste into value and at the same time absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in the making, which makes the process carbon-neutral if not even carbon-negative. This constitutes an excellent opportunity for companies aiming at boosting their carbon offsetting.

All of these benefits come at the same cost of the most commonly used polystyrene foam, while providing an alternative that is biodegradable, lightweight and strong, hydrophobic, and flame resistant. The only drawback of the product in the eyes of big companies is its short lifespan – being biodegradable, the material will fully break down in about a month. This is of course not good for companies currently operating on long distances on a daily basis, but it could represent an addition to the long list of elements advocating a shift towards shorter supply chains.

From micro-organisms to PHB

Polyhydroxybutyrate, or PHB, is a polymer organically produced by microorganisms in a variety of natural contexts, through a process that only requires water, minerals and carbon extracted from air. Despite being available since the dawn of time, it was only recently that some companies started researching on how to use it for the development of bioplastic solutions, and the first successful results of this research are already starting to reach the market.

The possible scope of applications of such materials ranges from textiles to furniture, while in the food sector it currently mostly finds application as biodegradable and resistant foodware. When discarded, it breaks down in a way that allows for the regeneration of the same processes that lead to its production, offering a circular and carbon negative solution which could potentially be perpetual if processed through the right technology. An industry-wide switch to this material could, therefore, have a significant impact in reducing environmental pollution and the diffusion of microplastic in our oceans, mitigating all the negative effects that come from that and significantly improving the health of people and the planet.

Due to the innovativeness of the research related to its production process, there are at the moment very few companies specializing in it, but the material certainly holds huge potential for growth and we’re bound to see it populating the market more and more in the future.

From wheat and sugar cane to moulded pulp

Moulded pulp is a material that looks very similar to standard cardboard packaging, yet differs in that it is obtained through the recycling and processing of a variety of fibrous materials like paper, sugarcane, wheat or bamboo straws. The pulping process is chemical-free and allows for zero waste of water, since all water used either evaporates or is repeatedly reused. Moreover, differently from cardboard options, moulded pulp is formed to shape and does not require any assembly, which makes processes simpler and quicker, while at the same time resulting in a more resistant final product.

Although not a new solution (you most likely have seen moulded pulp egg packages, for example), the manufacturing technology has improved significantly over the last few years, allowing for a smoother and more sophisticated look and feel, making it suitable even for the most demanding companies looking to provide their consumers with a high-quality experience through sustainable innovation. An excellent example can be found in startups experimenting with moulded pulp to create impermeable reusable bottles that serve as drink packaging, offering a solution that is 90% less carbon impactful than glass bottles and 30% less impactful than PET ones.

From seaweed to algae-based packaging

Kelp and other seaweed varieties have been progressively assuming the spotlight over the last few years as a precious source of nutrition and possible solution for making our food systems more sustainable, while establishing more equitable access to food. Some startups are taking seaweed’s role in this scheme to a whole new level by envisioning it as a starting material for innovative food packaging solutions.

Thanks to world-class technology, seaweed is processed into a transparent foil that can be used as a sealed drink container or as a food wrap. The obtained material is not only biodegradable, but even edible! This way, consumers can have a perfectly sustainable packaging applied potentially to all of their favourite products, and also get access to excellent nutrition by eating the packaging once the food inside it is consumed.

Although this looks like a dream solution, there’s still a lot of work to do to ensure stable and sustainable supply of seaweed to companies experimenting in this space before seeing seaweed-based packaging taking over the market. However, the premise is excellent and this is definitely something worth keeping an eye on.

From corn kernels to cornstarch packaging

Cornstarch packaging is one of the most widespread sustainable options when it comes to storing food, and chances are that you have already seen it or even used it for your takeaway food. This biodegradable material is obtained from the fermentation of sugars contained in cornstarch and the consequent innovative processing of polylactic acid, and can be used to create foodware, plastic-like cups, or even very resistant bags for your shopping and storing.

Cornstarch packaging. Image: Wikimedia Commons

To be sure, none of these packaging solutions are perfect. For instance, for cornstarch packaging items to break down fully in six months, consumers will need to dispose of them correctly, i.e. in a composting bin or commercial compost facility, which can sustain a temperature of 140 degrees Celsius for several days. As with current recycling rules, we’ll need to factor in time for public education and awareness to truly maximize the potential of these materials.

Additionally, new materials might offer a better option than plastic, but might still not be particularly kind to the climate. Since cornstarch packaging is biodegradable, it is significantly less impactful in terms of the production process compared to traditional plastic. Yet its starting ingredient is an agricultural product (corn) whose production is one of the main contributors to air pollution. Moreover, considering how inequitable our food system currently is and how difficult it is for some people to have access to food, it’s a big question whether utilizing a cheap and perfectly nutritious food to create packaging can really be considered as sustainable in the long term.


What is the World Economic Forum doing about plastic pollution?

So the main question is: how do we get to a widespread adoption of these sustainable alternatives? Through education, systems adaptation and technological advancement.

For all of us consumers, it’s crucial to spend time learning about the existence of different packaging options, as well as the best ways to process them. For policymakers, it’s fundamental to support the users in making the best choices, investing in better designed waste segregation processes, as well as in infrastructures able to stay up to date with packaging evolutions. Finally, for investors and donors, continuing to invest capital in packaging technology advancement is core to achieving the overall goal: we can’t decrease our carbon footprint without investing in innovation.

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