Edible packaging is made from plant-based materials or other edible materials which can be eaten or are easily biodegradable and compostable. Edible packaging forms we already have today include waffle cones and cups for ice cream, and sausage casings made from collagen and cellulose. In Asia and Africa, certain meals are served using banana leaves, especially when laying out food for a big group. In nature there are also natural edible packaging, such as the skins of fruit protecting the meat inside.
Edible packaging has gained traction over the years as an alternative to plastic packaging. The need for plastic packaging in order to protect food, has led to a lot of packaging waste from the food industry. It is estimated that 8 million tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean every year. This could ultimately lead to having more plastics than fish in the sea by 2050. While innovative packaging solutions such as bioplastics have been suggested to address the plastic pollution issue, this solution is still not the best, as bioplastics are not able to break down properly when they end up in the ocean, contrary to edible packaging that can be eaten or is able to break down quickly and leave behind no negative effects.
Edible Packaging Innovations
Edible packaging can be made from different constituents, one of them is milk protein. Milk protein, casein, is similar to plastic in that it is able to keep the food protected and prevent exposure to oxygen, and has no flavor. It has been found that by adding citrus pectin it is able to be more durable against higher temperatures and humidity, which may be a problem for other packaging forms.
Edible packaging can also be made from mushroom roots. This type of packaging is called Mycelium packaging, and is baked in order to create a protective cushioning. Ikea is currently trying to incorporate mycelium packaging into their supply chain.
Another ingredient that can be used is agar, a gelatinous substance in both seaweed and algae. This kind of packaging is called seaweed packaging. Natural sweeteners and dyes can also be used to make the agar colorful and more flavorful for packaging use. An example of this is from the company Notpla who created “Ooho”, an edible sachet. You can choose to eat the sachet after drinking the liquid inside, but if you don’t it will biodegrade within 4-6 weeks. Notpla has also expanded into using seaweed to create other forms of packaging such as takeaway boxes.
Lastly, plant residue can also be used. Traceless, a company in Germany, has used waste from agriculture such as starch and brewery residues, to create a “plastic” film. Even though it may not taste good, this film is safe to eat and is able to break down within two to nine weeks depending on the conditions and its thickness. If they end up in the ocean they are able to break down completely still, and if they are eaten by animals there are no negative effects to them. A benefit of using residue like this is that there is no need to compete for agricultural land, as no new plant material needs to be grown.
Consumers are becoming more environmentally conscious and friendly in all aspects of their life, wanting to make the best decision for the planet. Edible packaging, if made completely mainstream and used over plastic, has so much potential to limit the use of plastic, waste in the landfill and negative effects on the environment. This form of packaging also can be used in replace of plastic bags used in the grocery store or other forms of packaging, as they don’t need to be eaten and can just be left to decompose naturally.
There are however some issues that we need to consider.
An important factor when making edible packaging is to consider the flavor and whether that will affect the food it is protecting. If the taste is too strong it could affect the taste of the food inside.
The packaging also needs to be able to completely protect the food inside from the external environment and oxygen from breaking it down. This is especially important when considering changes in temperature and the shipping process and also the sanitation. This may result in non-edible materials being used, negating the point of using edible packaging. The care needed during the shipping process may also be expensive.
We also need to consider that it may not be trusted by everyone, and there may be some need for proper research and marketing done to convince people of the safety of edible packaging and the massive benefits it can provide. There is also the problem that people may suffer from food allergies which could prevent them from being able to eat the packaging and by contact, the food inside.
Overall there is still a lot of research and development in progress to address this issue and improve edible packaging. Huge efforts are also needed to convince individuals, government, businesses, etc., to make the switch especially as it is a more expensive alternative to conventional packaging. One way of encouraging people to switch could be by promoting the nutritional value of the packaging, which could add more fiber, vitamins and minerals to people’s diet. There are also prime markets such as air travel, cruises, camping etc. where it may be more accepted, due to it being “fun and different” from conventional packaging options, but also due to its environmental benefits. Imagine not having to clean up your packaging after camping because it will biodegrade naturally, and could even be eaten or thrown into the campfire.
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