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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Change the Product, Not Just the Packaging:
A Crucial Step Towards a Sustainable Food Future

A growing industry solution to plastic packaging pollution is to create food products that are more stable and compatible with more minimal and sustainable packaging materials.

In recent years, the world has witnessed growing environmental impacts due to the proliferation of unsustainable packaging. Over 80 million tons of plastic packaging is produced each year, with a recycling rate of only 5-6 percent — leaving millions of tons of plastic heading into landfills and waterways to contribute to pollution and endanger ecosystems. It is projected that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans.

Addressing this issue requires a shift in how we develop and package our products — and compostable packaging plays a significant role in enabling a sustainable future. By increasing awareness and educating consumers on the benefits of viable, compostable alternatives, individuals can make more informed purchasing decisions and drive positive change.

But the bottom line is that the only path to sustainability is for industry to break its dependence on plastic. One widespread belief fueling our habit is that the functionality of sustainable packaging materials needs to match that of traditional plastic. This isn’t necessarily true; there are many applications where the functionality of plastic is just not needed. Take, for instance, all the baggies of screws and parts that come with an item that needs to be assembled — several more sustainable packaging options could get that job done.

Food packaging, on the other hand, does require certain functionalities. It protects the food from the environment, aids in preservation, and helps maintain the integrity and safety of the product. However, foods have varying packaging needs; so, there’s no quick fix. It's important that we work together and think creatively to develop and support food packaging solutions that are both functional and sustainable.

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Admittedly, adopting sustainable packaging is not without its challenges. Governments and regulatory bodies play a crucial role. While it appears highly unlikely that any domestic regulatory body will tax — or really, in any way discourage — the manufacturing of something as prevalent and lucrative as plastic packaging, they can incentivize the use of sustainable materials through credits or offsets for the incremental costs. Creating a favorable regulatory environment encourages companies to prioritize sustainable packaging, which would lead to more widespread adoption and a corresponding reduction in negative environmental impacts.

Valid concerns over product integrity and compatibility also pose technical hurdles. Finding materials that meet a product’s unique requirements can be particularly difficult, especially for foods with a high moisture content — such as yogurt or hummus — that do not have an inherent barrier like that of fresh fruit. While environmentally unsustainable, the water barrier functionality that plastic packaging provides is critical.

Overcoming these challenges requires innovation and long-term investment. Brands and manufacturers have the opportunity to lead the change by integrating compostable packaging options and supporting the development of new materials. Inertia within established supply chains can be overcome through the adoption of long-term impact innovation and support from well-established companies or ESG-focused investors.

But what does this innovation look like? What should these brands and manufacturers be investing in? It’s time to reevaluate how we’re approaching the solution to our packaging problem: Change the product, not just the packaging.

It is possible to create food products that are more stable and compatible with more minimal and sustainable packaging solutions. Modifying a food itself, so that it requires less functionality (e.g. barrier protection) from its packaging, allows for compatibility with a broader set of materials that include more sustainable and bio-based solutions. Integrating barrier materials in the form of coatings or outer layers is an underutilized but growing solution in sustainable packaging. Companies such as Mori and Apeel make edible barriers that are designed to be applied to fresh foods’ existing peels and to extend shelf life. Foodberry uses biomimicry to replicate the properties of fruit skins and peels — creating coatings made of fibers, phytonutrients and minerals that manufacturers can use to create self-contained, bite-size versions of their signature products. The coatings create a functional, edible barrier — just like fruit skins found in nature — meaning that even hydrated foods can be distributed in bulk, or sold in compostable or biodegradable packaging.

The benefits of sustainable packaging extend to businesses, consumers, the environment and the entire economy. It stimulates innovation and product differentiation, appealing to consumer preferences for sustainability. By bringing new solutions to the market, businesses can leverage sustainability as an innovation catalyst — reducing environmental harm, improving human health, and fostering a healthier and more sustainable future.

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