Ditch those plastic packages
Six inventions for protecting our food with materials that protect the environment, too.
By Monique Brouillette
How good are organic lettuces and berries if they come wrapped in the same petroleum-based plastic as everything else? How much of a difference will reusable shopping bags make if you are going to load them up with containers that might pollute the ocean?
Humans produce 300 million tons of plastic every year, and roughly 30 to 50 percent of it is used just once. Much of it isn’t or can’t be recycled, which means the remnants of countless convenience items like water bottles, disposable utensils, snack wrappers, and even cardboard take-out boxes coated with plastic are piling up and will last for decades.
That’s why scientists in research labs and startup companies are developing ways of keeping food fresh without trashing the environment. Some are rethinking the materials used in containers, opting for seaweed, soy, silk, and even potatoes. Others question whether containers are needed at all. Here’s a hopeful glance at a future in which we won’t have to choose between convenience and sustainability.
“You don’t have to wrap an orange in plastic for it to last a long time,” says James Rogers, CEO of Apeel. That’s because orange rinds naturally protect the material inside from moisture and microbes. So Apeel has taken the molecular building blocks of hardy fruit skins and reformulated them into an edible spray that can be applied to freshly picked produce such as avocados, asparagus, cucumbers, and apples. The sprayed-on coating can’t be seen, tasted, or felt, but it can double or triple the shelf life of produce, reducing not only food waste but also plastic packaging and energy-intensive refrigeration. Apeel produce can be purchased at Kroger and Shop Rite grocery stores, but wider usage is expected now that the California-based startup, which began with a grant from the Gates Foundation in 2012, has raised more than $360 million in investment capital.
There has been much excitement about compostable plastics, but the reality is problematic. The majority of compostable plastics require long times in industrial composters, and the nutrient composition of the resulting compost can be less than desirable. That’s why there’s interest in polyhydroxyalkanoates or PHAs. PHAs are made by bacteria that gobble methane and produce a polymer similar to plastic that can be made into a variety of products, from grocery bags to food packaging. Best of all, “PHAs can degrade in your backyard composter or just in your backyard,” says Shannon Nangle, a research scientist at the Wyss Institute in Boston.
Incredible Foods, a Boston-based company, redesigned snack foods so they require no plastic packaging. Its signature product is a called a “berry,” and it consists of food wrapped in an edible coating meant to be enjoyed as part of the snack. Imagine a bite of fresh yogurt that is wrapped in a cherry shell or a bite of creamy hummus encased in a crunchy red pepper skin. Incredible Foods makes these coatings out of a blend of plant fibers from deconstructed fruit skins. Because of the protective qualities of the edible coating on the snacking pods, the container that holds them can be made of compostable paper. Incredible Foods sells some products on its website and might have them on grocery shelves in 2021.
Notpla produces bottles out of edible, biodegradable material made from seaweed. The London-based spinoff from Imperial College got its start making bubble-like pods for beverages and boasted a plastic-free hydration station at the London marathon in 2019. Videos of the event showed runners popping pods in their mouths without leaving behind any empty containers. The company is now branching out into making condiment packets, dry food wrappers, and coating for cardboard take-out containers. Seaweed is one of the fastest growing organisms on the planet, and the product requires no special recycling or composting to degrade.
Mori is a startup that arose from Professor Fiorenzo Omenetto’s silk lab at Tufts University after one of his postdoctoral researchers, Benedetto Marelli, discovered that silk could preserve strawberries without changing the taste. Using silk that’s not suitable for textiles — and thus is available at a fraction of the cost — they are scaling up production of a silk-based food protectant for produce and meat and hope to be in stores next year.
Proteins from crops like soy and potato can be used as plastic coatings and films that are fully biodegradable. Better yet, these proteins can be inexpensively obtained as waste products from facilities that process soybeans and potatoes. Xampla, a startup in Cambridge, England, plans to begin selling condiment packets and food wrappers with this biodegradable material late next year.
Monique Brouillette is a freelance science journalist in Cambridge.