Eradicating single-use plastics has become the focus for many environmentalists and waste management groups around the world. Food packaging such as plastic bags, foam punnets and foil packets are among the most common litter items found in the environment. As consumers seek cheaper and more convenient ways to transport food and drinks, could edible food packaging be the answer to reducing waste?
A large amount of litter can be traced back to a few companies. Fast-food franchises, beverage manufacturers and food producers have their logos on much of the packaging that ends up in the rivers, oceans and environment. Scientists are working towards creating edible food packaging to tackle this growing problem.
Milk-based food packaging
This research is expanding the possibility of edible packaging. The first generation of food packaging was starch-based. It was used to protect food items from damage, but it failed to keep the product fresh for longer. The next progression was casein-based packaging, which is made from milk protein.
This milk-based packaging is entirely edible and it keeps food fresh for longer. The casein keeps oxygen away from the edible products contained inside, and the packaging can be infused with additional vitamins and probiotics to make it healthy to consume.
Another natural packaging material is seaweed. The organic compounds of seaweed make it perfect for eating after wrapping up foods. The Japanese have been using seaweed as a wrapper for sushi and rice for centuries. Although it doesn’t protect food from oxygen exposure, it can be a viable short-term food packaging solution.
Existing alternatives to edible packaging
Currently, biodegradable packaging is the most popular packaging alternative. Compostable coffee cups and biodegradable punnets have become commonplace in cafés and restaurants. Even major food and beverage producers are embracing the idea of biodegradable plastic alternatives.
Pressure from governments and municipalities are driving the growth of the compostable packaging industry. As single-use plastics face more bans, organic alternatives continue to become more popular. These greener solutions may cost more to produce and purchase, but society has shown a clear interest in the idea.
The future of edible packaging
The idea of eating food packaging is still relatively new. No real business models can be studied and, at the moment, plastic packaging is still far cheaper to produce. However, in a few years’ time, we may see edible food packaging becoming a trendy way to reduce litter and plastic pollution. Experts estimate that the market could become a $2-billion industry by 2024.
Not only does edible packaging need to be fit for human consumption, but it also needs to taste good. This will encourage consumers to ingest the wrappers and packets instead of throwing them away. One major advantage of edible packaging is that it will also be biodegradable, so any discarded items will naturally break down in a landfill.
Society needs to weigh up the pros and cons of these solutions. Edible and compostable packaging may be more expensive, but the long-term impacts on the environment are almost non-existent. Compared to plastic which lasts for centuries in the oceans and landfills, edible food packaging will reduce waste in the environment.
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