Three edible packaging startups across three continents tackle retail waste, while smart biomaterials and meat wrapping are in the works
In 2022, biodegradable packaging materials accounted for around 9% of the global packaging market. A niche sub-segment within biodegradable packaging are edibles, whose materials are made from organic materials.
Edible packaging is safe for human consumption, meaning the wrapping becomes part of the food. Although this affords the technology a built-in marketing gimmick that widens its consumer appeal, this comes with an important ecological function: if a material is safe to eat, it will also break down in the environment without the need for any additional processing.
Edibles are so appealing from a sustainability standpoint because it shares chemical structures with living bodies and can therefore return its compounds safely to the environment. It gets rid of the need for expensive recycling infrastructures and collection processes that have inhibited plastic recycling rates around the world, even for bioplastics which are often biodegradable but only in particular conditions at dedicated industrial facilities.
While market researchers forecast that the total food packaging market, including the dominant petrochemical plastics, will grow around 5% between 2021 and 2028, the global edible packaging market size is estimated to hit a CAGR of between 6.78% to 14.31 from 2022 until 2030.
The edible packaging market is booming for good reason. It promises to displace the hard-to-recycle thermoplastics that dominate our supermarket fruit and vegetable aisles with a 100% biodegradable – even nutritious – alternative.
Rivals to wasteful plastic
Edibles are ideally suited to replacing conventional packaging in the food retail and transport sectors. Right now, the food packaging industry makes up 84 percent of hard-to-recycle thermoplastic end uses – from the low-density polyethylene used as packaging films to high density versions that make up things like milk cartons. Naturally, this also means that most polyethylene is destined for single use applications.
Worryingly, low density polyethylene is the fastest growing plastic packaging category – each year, demand increases around 8%. This is a disaster from an environmental point of view: 88% of the low density polyethylene used is landfilled, 10 combusted, and 2 recycled.
No doubt, thermoplastics have unique physical properties that have made them indispensable to the global food trade in perishables. Their main virtue is in protecting fruit and veg from decomposing microbial action. However, removing as much of them as possible from the supply chain is essential to setting the food industry on a greener path.
Edibles must in theory do all that petrochemicals do: control moisture loss and reduce the chemical reactions whereby microbes break down the produce. Right now, many of the offerings on the market can offer similar functionality to conventional plastics. They can also be formulated with antimicrobial, antioxidants, and even flavors and colors.
There are now edible packaging startups all around the world using a diversity of feedstocks, including from organic materials that would otherwise go unused.
First on our list is a Chilean company called Polynatural. Its product Shel-Life is a 100% plant based emulsion coating for fruit that prevents it from drying out on long journeys.
Since Polynatural serves agribusinesses that ship various kinds of produce, it offers numerous formulations of the Shel-Life emulsion. During an initial consultation process, the company will adjust the physical parameters of its emulsion to suit the fruit of veg that a client plans to transport. The customised emulsion is then sprayed onto the produce on a production line, ready for their journey.
Shel-Life reduces the packaging carbon emissions associated with Chile’s huge food export industry as most food producers in the country currently use petrochemical-based synthetic waxes for transport preservation.
However, Polynatural’s business model does not just aim at carbon reduction: it runs on a circular system by using organic waste from the agricultural sector as feedstock for the emulsion.
The company is not short of this input, operating out of a country where around 1.3 billion tons of food production is wasted every year, according to the FAO. So far, the company has coated more than 35, 000 tons of fruit in its emulsion on their journeys from Chile to Europe, North America, and Asia drawing on a total of 273.6 tons of agricultural waste feedstock.
Lactips, France, makes edible packaging from the casein protein found in milk combined with an alkali compound.
Although the company started off making biodegradable carriers for chemicals and home detergents, they also make a fully consumable version for food. The patented protein material, branded CareTips, can mimic the thin flexibility of plastic wraps and outperforms petrochemical wrappings on keeping oxygen out from perishables.
Even though the material is designed to be full substitutes for highly reclaimant thermoplastics, Lactips film is totally biodegradable within 18 days and is not eco-toxic.
The company has already struck deals with major chemicals firms. As well as industrial chemical firms like BASF, Lactips partnered in 2019 with IMCD Groups, a distributor of both specialty chemicals and food ingredients.
Namma Nicotra is an Israeli designer making edible packaging a culinary art form. Her brand NakedPak may be the most creative edible packaging application on our list, with a coating that is not just safe for consumption but forms part of the cooking process.
Nicotra distinguishes herself from edible packaging competitors however by pushing the functionality of the coating. Nicotra mixes her alginate bioplastic with spices and sauces. They are designed to go straight into the pot with the food that it contains. For example, she has prototyped a curry dish where the wrapper is flavored with Thai vegetable curry spices, wrapped around white rice. Once heated, it melts down into a tasty sauce.
Ongoing challenges: combining materials for better performance
However, basic research into edible biomaterials is still in demand. Problems with their functionality include being more permeable to air, moisture, and microbes than plastics.
Researchers are finding that nanomaterials may solve the permeability problem in edible films. Nanomaterials are not defined by any specific kind of chemical makeup: they are any materials that have at least one of its particle sizes measuring between 1-100 nm.
By tweaking these nanoparticles, we can improve the overall physical properties of the packaging. For example, a 2021 study found silver nanoparticles in whey protein-based films increased its tensile strength by 84% and barrier properties by 67%. Of course, silver would not be the most cost-effective nor safest ingredient edible biobased packaging sector needs right now. Indeed, many candidate nanomaterials can have toxic effects on the human body.
So, is there an inevitable tradeoff between performance and eco-friendly biodegradability? Although the food industry has relied on synthetic formulations for decades, nature’s store cupboard may be diverse enough to provide seamless replacements to petrochemicals.
Researchers are working on countless mixtures of organic products to come up with the perfect biomaterial for coating our produce: recent experiments have included pomegranate peel extract combined with 90% chitosan (which inhibited melanosis and improved sensory qualities of produce), or a mix of 1% agar and fish protein hydrolysates and glycerol, clove essential oils (which reduced damaging biochemical reactions between the air and product, as well as microbiological growth).
Just last year, scientists developed yet another new green plastic from gelatin, clay, and a nano-emulsion of black pepper essential oil. The researchers found that nano-clay made for an end product that was stronger and less permeable to moisture.
In fact, the possible combinations of organic materials that could make up edible packaging are countless. Most of these will never reach market – abundant, cheap feedstock is essential for a material to be a viable option.
Edible packaging for meat still an open field
The hardest challenge yet for the edible packaging industry will be meat packing. Although edibles have conquered fruits, vegetables, and dry goods like pasta, raw meat is in a category of its own when it comes to the risk of bacterial contamination. No perfect substitute for plastic coatings has hit the market.
Still, some candidate biomaterials are on the horizon. Chief among them is seed mucilage: polysaccharides covering the outer layer of seeds, made usually from some combination of xylan, pectin, glucomannan, and cellulose. Researchers tested chicory extract oil with Lepidium perfoliatum seed mucilage to obtain an edible coating mixture that suppressed growth and killed Gram-positive bacteria like S. aureus, B. cereus, and L. innocula. Other mixtures include lavender oil, which acts as the antimicrobial agent.
Responsive edibles on their way
Another horizon for the edible packaging industry is smart packaging. Here, bio-based edible packaging will change colour or texture depending on the physical condition of the food it contains inside. This sort of innovation would tackle waste reduction at the consumer end as well as energy consumption on the producer end, giving an easy and reliable method for retailers and consumers to detect spoilage and impending sell-by dates.
As ever, the EU is ahead of the curve on R&D. In October 2022, a consortium of European Union researchers announced they are working on active smart bio-based compostable food packaging under the BIOSMART project. While the project will work on printed sensors that detect changes in gas levels inside the packaging, the ultimate goal in this area will be to formulate materials that will themselves visibly alter in response to chemical changes inside them.