As disposing of plastic waste becomes a bigger and bigger environmental problem, green-minded people are trying to find ways to reduce and even eliminate its use as much as possible. One major user of plastic waste is the food packaging industry. Plastic has long been used as a way to keep foods fresh during transport and shelf time, and plastic and Styrofoam are often used for food service and takeaway containers. However, new inventions in sustainable packaging are seeking to eliminate the use of these materials, making not only packaged foods themselves biodegradable, but also the material surrounding them.
Consider the egg, the outer shell of which, though it's not used, is as biodegradable as its inner shell and can be used as natural fertilizer for plants and for other purposes. This makes it a perfect example of the goals sustainable packaging advocates are trying to achieve, Leif Steiner, principal and creative director at Moxie Sozo, a design and advertising agency in Boulder, Colo., that tries to achieve sustainability in all of its design and business practices, tells Design News. "The ultimate package would protect the contents during shipping and then be consumable or reusable afterward," he says. "Nature's ultimate package would, of course, be an egg."
While sustainable packaging is still in its early stages, there is a fair number of companies already offering options for the food service and manufacturing industries. Meanwhile, creative designers are coming up with some innovative ways to create biodegradable and sustainable packaging for food products.
Before elaborating on some of the ideas designers have for greener directions in food packaging, a distinction must be made between biodegradable and sustainable solutions. Steiner cautions that these words should be used carefully, since "the industry loves to use terms like biodegradable and sustainable, but at the end of the day very little is biodegradable, and very little is sustainable. It's the journey more than the destination."
But by working with materials that aren't plastic, designers and manufacturers are beginning to develop packaging that can be reused and recycled more, and that also does less harm to the environment. With biodegradable packaging, "the concept is that something when it returns to the earth, would degrade into natural products," he says. Sustainable packaging, on the other hand, in theory "doesn't cost the earth anything," because it can be reused or recycled. That said, he cautions, "Anything we do comes with a cost."
Greener design ideas
Keeping this in mind, design firms are devising innovative ways to package food that stray from traditional packaging concepts. Perhaps some of the most creative ideas in biodegradable packaging have come from Swedish firm Tomorrow Machine, based in Stockholm and Paris. Steiner mentioned the inspiration for packaging ideas that can come from an egg. The designers at Tomorrow Machine were inspired by fruit skin for their campaign, "This Too Shall Pass," in which they designed a number of food packages that have the same short life span as their contents and are composed of natural materials.
"We started this project by asking the question: 'Is it reasonable that it takes several years for a milk carton to decompose naturally, when the milk goes sour after a week?' " Anna Glansen, co-founder of Tomorrow Machine, tells us. "The package and its content are working in symbiosis. In this project, we ask ourselves how packaging can be made in a near future, with the technology that is available today. Our inspiration is fruit peel and how nature itself packages food."