Food retailers and restaurants offering takeaway and delivery services continue to pile on food packaging waste. The situation is becoming unsustainable: of all plastics produced worldwide today, nearly 40% is used to pack food and drinks. While consumers are often the ones blamed for not making conscious choices when shopping for food, often they are not offered alternatives or forced to purchase over-packaged groceries or single-use containers that restaurants use to deliver their dishes. Supermarkets and eateries need to step up their efforts and stop this vicious cycle once and for all. These sustainable food packaging companies are a great starting point.
Why Do We Need Sustainable Food Packaging Alternatives?
Every day, hundreds of millions of single-use foil, cans, and trays used to pack up groceries, non-biodegradable containers, straws, and plastic cutlery in food takeaways and deliveries are thrown away around the world. Despite its convenience, some of the most popular food packaging materials are also bringing detrimental harm to the environment.
We recently compared some of the most used materials in food packaging, including glass, paper and paperboard, metal, and, of course, plastic. Though the latter is known for its high environmental footprint, its cheap price and versatility make it a very attractive option among food manufacturers. Despite having a lower environmental impact, the toxic additives in glass and metal make them also extremely dangerous once they are disposed of. Even paper and paperboard – often mistaken for more environmentally friendly materials – require up to three times the amount of energy needed to produce plastic and they are nearly impossible to recycle after encountering food.
While none of the conventional and most widespread food packaging materials are sustainable, it is not all bad news. An increasing number of companies and startups – mostly located in North America – are investing time and resources in the development of alternative packaging materials which are easy to recycle, reuse, compost, or biodegrade and thus, have a minimal environmental footprint.
As is the case in many other sectors, the food industry is undergoing a revolution in terms of finding sustainable alternatives and meeting growing sustainable consumer demands. Startups and companies have developed incredibly innovative solutions to classic food packaging materials and thanks to the constant progress made within the industry, the global sustainable food packaging market is set to reach a staggering USD$280 billion in value in 2026, a 50% increase from 2021. While these alternatives are still used in very small quantities around the world in comparison to glass, plastic, and paper, they have the potential to radically transform the sector if more businesses start investing in them.
Here are some of the most revolutionary sustainable food packaging options available and the companies behind them.
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1. Avocado Pits as Plastic Replacement for Cutlery
An increasing number of companies have found ways to use agro-industrial waste to produce food packaging in a bid to find more sustainable alternatives to conventional materials and reduce food scraps at the same time.
Mexico-based BIOFASE successfully developed a unique technology to turn avocado pits into biodegradable products. Instead of disposing of it, the company collects pits and turns them into bioplastic. This is then converted into cutlery, plates, straws, and containers that can easily and naturally decompose in landfills or on land. The avocado pit-based bioplastic makes up 60% of the products, while the rest are organic compounds to ensure the products’ proper mechanical and physical properties. Contrary to petroleum-based plastics, which alter the natural carbon cycle, the biomass in the company’s products reintegrates its carbon back into the natural cycle.
Produced exclusively in Latin America using nearly 130 tons of avocado seeds each month, BIOFASE’s food packaging and cutlery are exported to more than 25 countries around the world.
2. Sustainable Beverage Packaging
Aluminium, carton, glass, plastic. Beverages around the world are packed in a multitude of ways. Every year, we go through 180 billion cans of beer and soda – approximately 6,700 every second, and one million plastic bottles per minute. Fortunately, some companies have revolutionised the drink industry by developing much more sustainable packaging alternatives.
One of them is the British Garçon Wines, which has developed flat bottles made of recycled PET plastic that is 87% lighter than glass. The innovative shape and extremely low-weight material allow the company to pack bottles tightly into cartons without the need for additional packaging. As they occupy less space than conventional, round-shaped wine bottles, up to 91% more products can be packed on a single shipping pallet. Such efficient space utilisation, reduced loading time and less packaging material allow the company to cut nearly half of the emissions.
Similarly, British-based Frugalpac developed a technology to replace glass with cellulose-fibre bottles for wines, sake, and spirits. The so-called Frugal Bottle is made from 94% recycled paperboard and it is five times lighter than glass. Despite not being 100% biodegradable, the invention has a much lower carbon footprint, nearly six times less than conventional bottles, making it a great alternative – not only to glass but also to plastic bottles – with the potential to revolutionise the beverage packaging sector.
3. Sustainable Cornstarch, Popcorn, and Mushroom-based Food Packaging
Cornstarch-based packaging has been proven to be an excellent biodegradable alternative to styrofoam and plastic containers. Used to manufacture plates, bags, trays, and boxes, cornstarch is part of an even larger movement of emerging bioplastics derived from agricultural waste and byproducts that offer a valid and environmentally safe alternative to classic packaging materials. This type of packaging is made of polylactic acid (PLA). Derived from renewable sources, PLA is one of the world’s most popular bioplastics and among the most common biodegradable materials used in food packaging.
Cornstarch has several advantages. Aside from being an infinite, affordable, and readily available ingredient, these packages are also 100% biodegradable, recyclable, and compostable and do not contain harmful toxins, making them favourable environmentally friendly alternatives. However, it is worth noting that the technology is still in its infancy, and cornstarch packaging does have some drawbacks mainly related to the improper disposal of the material due to a lack of consumer awareness.
But this is not the only plant-based packaging alternative we have. Researchers at the University of Göttingen in Germany have developed a material that looks exactly like Styrofoam, except it is entirely plant-based and has a minimal impact on the environment. Unlike Styrofoam and other polystyrene-based packaging types – which take centuries to break down and are made from nonrenewable fossil fuels – popcorn is readily available, biodegradable, and can even be composted at home. Furthermore, it has a high air content, making for a great packaging material with remarkable insulation properties.
The university has already entered a licensing agreement with grain and cereal manufacturer Nordgetreide for commercial use of the popcorn-packaging making process and is now working on manufacturing several products, from spice jars to cups and plates.
Another revolutionary invention is mushroom-based packaging. 100% biodegradable and made with only two ingredients – hemp hurd and mycelium, part of a fungus that effectively acts as its roots and grows in a mass of branched fibres – this high-performance and water-resistant packaging can be disposed of in nature, where it will decompose within weeks. Even though the invention dates back to 2006, it struggled to take off until recently. In 2020, Swedish giant IKEA decided to start using this mushroom-based alternative to ship some of its products, a small yet significant step in the right direction, as a way to promote this great invention across the world and hopefully encourage other companies to follow suit
4. Sustainable Bamboo Takeaway Packaging
One last popular alternative packaging material is Bamboo, one of the fastest-growing woody plants in the world. It is not only biodegradable and 100% compostable within two to six months, it also releases 35% more oxygen into the atmosphere than the same volume of trees. Its strength and flexibility make it an ideal material to use as construction scaffolding but its renewability and versatility make it also an attractive and more sustainable material for packaging companies.
Thailand-based Universal Biopack produces bamboo and cassava-based packaging for restaurants and manufacturers with the hope to replace popular Styrofoam and plastic boxes and bags, thus tackling the plastic waste crisis that is haunting not only Thailand but the entire world.
Using bamboo from leftover scraps from the chopstick manufacturing process, the company produces a wide range of products – from trays and bowls to cups and cutlery – ideal not only for the takeaway sector but also for grocery stores to pack up their fresh produce. In order to scale up production and expand its operations to other countries, Universal Biopack has recently built a new factory near Bangkok and doubled its staff in a move to increase monthly capacity from 300,000 units to one million.
EO’s Position: We have all the instruments we need to drastically reduce the detrimental impact of the food packaging industry on the environment. While consumers can do their part by shopping more consciously at grocery stores and bringing reusable containers when getting takeaway food, the situation will not change unless food retailers and restaurants step up their game as well. If we want to cut packaging waste, we need big companies to take the lead and make the necessary switch to more sustainable food packaging alternatives.
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