Given that the goal of food packaging is to contain food in a cost-effective way that satisfies industry requirements and consumer desires, maintains food safety and minimizes environmental impact, a growing number of entrepreneurs and researchers are working on innovative solutions for food as packaging material. The layer that is in direct contact with the food or beverage is called “food contact material” and it applies to food (and beverage) packaging, but also to any other materials that come into contact with food, either during storage, processing and filling, or consumption (like cooking utensils). In general, any food contact material should not release chemicals into the food at quantities that can harm human health (EU 1935/2004, Article 3).
Biodegradable packaging is one of the new trends for green living, since it can be disposed of with ordinary trash removing the hassle of sorting trash into recyclables. Biodegradable items consist of renewable resources that can be harvested directly from nature and completely decompose, with the aid of micro organisms, when placed in a composting area. It is quite different from the so called compostable material since biodegradable refers to the ability of materials to break down and return to nature while compostable materials may be similar to biodegradable materials, since they are both intended to return to the earth safely, but simultaneously they provide the earth with nutrients once the material has completely broken down.
However, there is another emerging trend that extends on biodegradable packaging and that is packaging made of food material. Food like mushrooms, kelp, milk and tomato peels are planned to turn into edible — if not always palatable — replacements for plastics, coatings and other packaging materials. Some projects regarding food as food packaging can be read below.
(1) The NaturALL Bottle Alliance created by Danone, Nestlé Waters and Origin Materials. Together, the three partners aim to develop and launch at commercial scale a PET plastic bottle made from bio-based material, i.e. 100% sustainable and renewable resources. The project uses biomass feedstocks, such as previously used cardboard and sawdust, so it does not divert resources or land from food production for human or animal consumption.
(2) Merck Forest and Farmland Center,cooperating with Ecovative, produce Mushroom Packaging: their organic syrup product is stored in a recyclable container and shipped in stable organic packaging, which can be home-composted or used as garden mulch.
(3) The BIOCOPACPlus project, funded under LIFE+ Environment Policy and Governance, with the goal to prove and demonstrate the viability of an innovative technology for the production of a bio-lacquer obtained from the re-use of the tomato waste and to be used as coating for food contact applications in metal cans.
(4) The Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, at Harvard, has extracted chitosan, a polysaccharide, from shrimp and lobster shells and combined it with silk fibers to create an alternative to plastic packaging, called Shrilk and it can be used to make egg cartons or a wrap for lettuces.
(5) Skipping Rocks Lab has developed a packaging from edible seaweed called Ooho, and is building a machine to produce containers from Ooho to hold water, juices, cosmetics and other liquids on the spot. Ooho is 100% made of Plants & Seaweed, biodegradable in 4-6 weeks, edible, fresh (shelf life of a few days), 5x less CO₂, 9x less Energy vs PET and cheaper than plastic.
Benefits and drawbacks of food as packaging material The main benefit is that packaging materials which are damaging the environment, such as plastic, glass etc, can be replaced by environmentally friendly and biodegradable or compostable materials. Images with huge landfills of plastic and glass, sea animals or birds caught in garbage, fires due to glass thrown in flamable areas etc, shall be no more. Recycling may then focus on tackling materials from non-food industry. In addition, food waste can be used efficiently in a packaging form rather than just be disposed of. Hence, large processing industries may use their own waste as packaging their own products, saving significant amounts of money. Consumers can also contribute by collecting their food waste and giving it to recycle. Finally, new industries, markets and job posts can be created and the commercial value of traditional agricultural commodities may be re-evaluated on the basis of their extended usage.
On the other hand, many argue that, since there is excess food, why use it on packaging rather than feeding the poor or famine-struck countries? People die from starvation every day and millions are sick, due to low-nutrition meals, or underfed. In those areas, food is the priority, not packaging. Furthermore, besides the humanitarian view, there is also the market's view as follows: investing on food as packaging material should ne decided after taking into account the consumer's behavior, in case he/she thinks that the packaging is hazardous. Product sales may drop if the consumer's trust drops, so any action should be based on a gradual cultural change. Health hazards are not to be dismissed since the “food contact material”, being mainly organic, may distort the food or beverage packaged, ultimately resulting in failure of the innovative packaging's goals.