Imagine the future of snacking: You grab a cheese stick. After you're done, you can eat its milk protein food wrapper and avoid creating any trash. Next, you reach for a cup of apple juice. When you're finished drinking the juice, you can enjoy the edible cup, so there's nothing to throw away. Food wrappers and containers that are safe to eat may help solve the plastic crisis.
Global Plastic Crisis
The global plastic crisis affects every aspect of the environment. According to National Geographic, the oceans are filled with 18 billion pounds of plastic every year, and people buy about 1 million plastic bottles every minute around the globe. In the United States, only 9 percent of all plastic is recycled, and the average person uses 365 plastic bags per year.
Most of the plastic packaging, containers and other items do not make it to a recycling center. Instead, they end up in landfills and waterways, so plastic pollutes the water and ground around the entire planet. Plastic products can take hundreds of years to break down. For example, a plastic bottle can take 450 years to biodegrade.
Plastic can leach chemicals into the ground and water as it degrades. In addition, burning plastic can release harmful toxins that affect air quality and cause respiratory problems. Many marine animals end up eating plastic and dying from it. Plastic can also negatively affect plants, which upsets the food chain and ecosystems.
Single-use packaging creates an enormous amount of waste in many countries. From Styrofoam cups for drinking water to plastic wrappers around candy, it is easy to fill entire landfills with items that people only use once and throw away. When you consider how much of that plastic wraps or holds food, it is easy to understand why researchers and companies want to create biodegradable alternatives that are better for the environment.
Edible Food Wrappers
There are many solutions that may help solve the plastic crisis, and edible food wrappers offer a simple way to reduce global dependence on plastic. Although relying on reusable, nonplastic containers and bringing your own shopping bags can help, some food items need packaging for health and safety reasons.
Edible and biodegradable food wrappers can eliminate a large amount of plastic packaging. From plastic cups to sandwich wrappers, edible products can protect food without creating waste. Flavored packaging can also add a fun element to any snack or meal. This type of packaging also eliminates concerns about harmful chemicals leaching from plastic into food.
Packaging Made From Milk Proteins
Edible packaging made from milk proteins is one solution. At a meeting of the American Chemical Society, researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed wrappers made from milk proteins. In addition to eliminating the need for plastic, these wrappers can block oxygen and prevent the food from spoiling. Made from casein, which is a type of milk protein, the wrappers are clear and convenient.
The milk protein film is 500 times better than plastic at preventing oxygen from ruining food. When you compare them to plastic films, the casein wrappers look almost the same on the surface. However, you can eat the milk proteins safely, and you cannot eat plastic. Researchers believe that flavoring can enhance the casein film. Moreover, it may be possible to add vitamins, minerals and nutrients to it in the future.
Single-serve items like cheese sticks could benefit from having casein wrappers. Manufacturers could also spray the film on products such as cereals to keep them crunchy instead of using sugar. You would be able to eat the wrappers and coating without any health risks.
However, people who have milk allergies would need to be careful and avoid these products. This is why researchers want to use casein film only on dairy products since people with allergies would stay away from them anyway.
Packaging Made From Seaweed
Reuters reports that Evoware, an Indonesian startup company, is making edible packaging from seaweed. The biodegradable products can replace plastic cups, sandwich bags and other items. The company uses sustainable, farmed seaweed as the raw material for the packaging. The items can dissolve in warm water, so they generate zero waste. You can also eat them if you prefer.
There are no preservatives in the packaging, yet it can stay on the shelf for two years. The seaweed naturally contains fiber, minerals and vitamins, so you benefit from eating it. Evoware makes food wraps that can work for burgers, sandwiches or bread. It also makes coffee sachets, dry seasoning sachets and soap packages.
In general, Evoware's products are tasteless and odorless, but it produces special single-cup items that have flavors. Called Ello Jello and designed to serve as tableware, these cups come in lychee, peppermint, orange and green tea scents. Ello Jello cups are safe to consume and can last for three days at room temperature or seven days in the refrigerator.
Packaging Made From Other Biodegradable Materials
At the University of Nottingham, researchers invented food packaging made from plant carbohydrates. The edible and biodegradable products consist of konjac flour, starch, cellulose and proteins. The wrappers are also transparent, so you can see what you're buying.
Business Insider reports that Ecovative makes packaging and other products from mushrooms. The company hopes to replace Styrofoam with its biodegradable alternatives. Ecovative takes byproducts from farms, such as corn stalks, and mixes them with mycelium. It only takes nine days to grow the products. The flame-resistant and water-resistant packaging can also go in the compost.
How You Can Help
You can help by looking for alternative solutions to using plastics every day. By supporting companies that make edible and biodegradable food packaging and wrappers, you can help shift the industry toward eco-friendly and sustainable products. Pay attention to the wrappers on your cheese sticks, sandwiches and other food. If possible, try to purchase items that are not in plastic or designed for single-use.
- Smithsonian: Here’s a Food Wrapper You Can Eat
- ACS: Edible Food Packaging Made from Milk Proteins (Video)
- Reuters: Indonesian startup wages war on plastic with edible seaweed cups
- National Geographic: Planet or Plastic?
- National Geographic: Fast Facts About Plastic Pollution
- Telegraph: The Stark Truth About How Long Your Plastic Footprint Will Last on the Planet
- Phys.org: Green and Edible Cling Film and Food Packaging Made From Plants
- Business Insider: Ecovative Turns Mushrooms into Packaging and Walls
About the Author
Lana Bandoim is a freelance writer and editor. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in biology and chemistry from Butler University. Her work has appeared on Forbes, Yahoo! News, Business Insider, Lifescript, Healthline and many other publications. She has been a judge for the Scholastic Writing Awards from the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers. She has also been nominated for a Best Shortform Science Writing award by the Best Shortform Science Writing Project.