Plastic-free Packaging Materials: Innovative Designs that Really Hold Water

By Liz Skolnick

Shifting our focus momentarily from the challenges to recycling, this week we’ll look at some alternative packaging materials which may offer “upstream” solutions, in the form of relief from the mounds of plastic that accompany everyday products we buy and ship to our homes. Some of these alternative materials are still being developed and tested in the lab, though versions of them are already used in commercial and industrial applications. Others have been used in some capacity for years and are now gaining in popularity. Below, we discuss some of the eco-materials that have made waves in recent years, hopefully paving the way for nixing petroleum-based packaging for good.

Liquid wood

Liquid wood is made from lignin, an organic polymer found in plant cells, and a readily available paper mill byproduct. When lignin is combined with water and subjected to pressure and heat the end product is a biodegradable, flexible and fully recyclable material that performs like plastic and has many applications. Liquid wood has been used to make toys, speaker cabinets, and can be injection molded to form nearly any desired shape for accessories like sunglasses and wristwatches.

Algae-based packaging

After successfully shipping a fragile bottle wrapped in its algae based packaging material - which functions like bubble wrap - Japanese design company AMAM went on to win the grand prize at the 2016 Lexus Design Award. Now, other biofabrication companies are following suit using agar, a gelatinous substance found in seaweed, to produce foam packaging. Other uses for seaweed have already been found in the form of architectural cladding, yarn and lampshades. Seaweed-based packaging materials are fully biodegradable, and as agar retains water, some manufacturers even suggest it be added to home gardens to improve soil quality.

Mushroom-based packaging

Fungus is steadily gaining attention as the main ingredient in the packaging of the future. Forward thinking companies like Ecovative Design have developed technology that capitalizes on the quick growth of mycelia, the “roots” of mushrooms which create a weblike system of material that combines with agricultural waste products to create a durable “mycofoam.” This mycofoam functions just like cardboard shipping material. The fungus-based material is toxin-free, and is fully biodegradable and compostable.

Milk proteins

Revolutionary eco-packaging has been developed in the past few years from a milk protein called “casein.” Resembling plastic film, casein-based material is actually 500 times better than plastic at keeping oxygen out and away from food products vulnerable to decomposition. What’s more, it’s completely biodegradable and edible! Some manufacturers are even discussing adding vitamins and probiotics, as well as flavoring to make the edible packaging nutritious and tasty. Casein-plastics stand as a great alternative to regular plastic packaging, but we must take care to ensure the milk protein is ethically sourced with proper consideration to prevent harm to animals.

PLA Polyesters

Polylactic acid is a polyester that can be made from the lactic acid in starchy plants like corn, wheat, beets and sugarcane. Like other plastic-alternative materials, PLA polyesters use agricultural byproducts readily available from the milling of plant materials, thus utilizing biodegradable source material while also cutting down on the amount of waste sent to landfills. PLA’s break down in 47 days in industrial composting conditions, and do not release toxins when incinerated. PLA is an incredibly versatile material which can be used to make household objects like coffee cups and shrink wrap, and also has applications in the medical and automotive fields.

PHA Polyesters

These polyesters are formed when a certain types of bacteria feed on sugar, creating a durable plastic-like substance that can be used to preserve food, as an additive in films and injection molded bottles, among other uses. While there are a few different types of PHAs, they all biodegrade in water and carbon dioxide in aerobic (oxygen-containing) or anaerobic (oxygen-free) composting environments. PHAs are currently somewhat expensive to make, as compared with plastics, but continued refining of the manufacturing process may lower costs in the years to come.

These eco-materials present us with some truly amazing, environmentally-friendly alternatives to the usual petroleum-based packaging that can leach toxins into land and waterways, and become trash that sticks around for hundreds of years. We expect to see even more innovation along these lines in the near future. But in the meanwhile, the majority of packaging materials still include petroleum products of some kind. This means we must keep up the fight, urging legislators and policy-makers to make recycling a priority, and tackling the problems associated with the waste we continue to create as a global community.