It’s no secret that the world has a plastic problem. Every year, millions of tonnes of bottles, bags and debris make their way to landfill, where they can sit for centuries before finally decomposing. We’re only just coming to terms with what a disaster our dependency may be. As planet earth becomes ever more polluted, people are finally beginning to realise that we need to act, and fast.
The problem is that plastic is still really useful. As a way to transport and protect food, there aren’t many products that do it better. Damaging as they are, plastic bags and containers are a cheap, flexible and reliable way for both the public and the industry to get produce from A to B. If we want to have any hope of weaning ourselves off the things that are poisoning the planet, there needs to be at least one viable, environmentally friendly solution on the table.
Thankfully, the scientific community is starting to fight back. Changing demands from environmentally conscious consumers, coupled with the growing realisation that we’re all doomed if we don’t do something, has seen a slew of businesses turn their attention to our packaging problem. Their solution, rather than to let our shopping bags sit forever in a hole in the ground, is to persuade us to eat them.
The idea of an edible shopping bag may not sound like the most appealing thing on the menu, but in many ways it makes a lot of sense. What better way to bust out of the cycle of “take, make, waste” - described by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation as the “circular economy” - than to swap "waste" for "taste"? In a world where both food supply and plastic usage are growing concerns, the plan could kill two birds with one stone.
There are a number of new businesses currently considering how to turn theory into reality. The UK-based Skipping Rocks Lab announced this year that they have created a revolutionary water pouch that they call “Ooho”. An edible, clear capsule, made from a membrane of brown algae is being marketed, according to the Guardian newspaper, as “an esoteric post-beverage snack”. Developers Pierre-Yves Paslier and Rodrigo García González claim that the seaweed is not only safe to eat, but is also easy to regrow - potentially showing the way for future edible alternatives.
Skipping Rocks are not the only game in town. In September 2017, Indonesian company Evoware launched their own alternative packaging made from a mixture of desiccated seaweed, which can be used as a wrapping for everything from noodles to burgers. Edible straws made from pasta have long been a popular feature of more environmentally minded bars and restaurants, but some businesses sought to be even more ambitious. Bakey’s of Hyderabad, for instance, have produced a whole range of edible crockery, including spoons, forks and plates, proving that the drive to replace the plastic in our food is not just limited to packaging.
With so much change affecting the industry, it’s no surprise that scientists are still discovering new potential plastic replacements. Given the nature of the work, research often requires some outside-of-the-box thinking. For instance, National Geographic recently reported that students at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn New York were devoting significant time to the question of viable, alternative organic materials. The results were fascinating.
Beyond famously flexible and well established substances, such as seaweed-derived agar, students explored the possibility of using mycelium threads from mushrooms to create water-tight bowls, as well as a paper-based alternative to takeout containers. That each group of students were able to come up with their own design just goes to show the sheer number of alternatives that may be waiting to be discovered.
Aside from the obvious benefit of not killing the planet, there is strong evidence to suggest that replacement packaging may be even more effective than what we currently use. In May of this year, the University of Cork published a paper looking into just how workable an edible plastic solution may actually may be. They found that, on top of being biodegradable and recyclable, edible films actually had a greater “puncture strength” than their plastic counterparts.
The study also found that, “Although edible/biodegradable films showed an overall lower mechanical strength than synthetic films, they were still within a sufficiently acceptable range to be capable of holding most food products.” Though the research was by no means conclusive, the results seem to suggest that, were we to move towards an entirely edible and biodegradable packaging model, we would have to sacrifice very little by way of ability to transport or store produce.
All this seems to be pretty positive for the future of the plastics industry. Not only is the need for an alternative system already there, but it seems that we actually have the ability to make it happen. The push for a change has some powerful backers, with major companies and governments all recognising that eating our packaging may well be the way forward. The real question is whether we as consumers are ready to start chowing down on our shopping bags. Whether we like it or not, we have the power in this debate. If we agree that eating the box along with pizza is the way forward, big business will start making it happen. If we don’t, we may well keep drifting towards a plasticky grave.