Sustainable packaging is too costly and not scalable for stakeholders across the value chain; innovative technologies must maintain resource efficiency as much as affordability.
The authors review three options for food packaging based on costs and scalability, and identify Mushroom Packaging as the most promising option.
The authors also present three policy recommendations to reduce plastic pollution.
By Lydia Delamatta, International Development Studies M.A. Candidate, Shilpa Janarthan Suresh, MBA Candidate at GWSB, and Mariana Jo-Bonilla, International Economic Policy, M.A. Candidate, The George Washington University
Just as food sustains life, food packaging maintains it. Unfortunately, around 40 percent of plastic is used for food packaging every year [i]. The industry in the United States alone produces approximately one billion pounds of plastic waste annually, the majority of which are single-use plastics that cannot or are not recycled or upcycled, thus end up in landfills, oceans or streets [ii] [iii] [iv]. Currently, sustainable packaging is too costly and not scalable to stakeholders across the value chain. Therefore, to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 12: Responsible consumption and production, innovative technologies must maintain resource efficiency as much as affordability.
Viable technologies are in the pipeline and intended on addressing these challenges. Below we review three opportunities of multidimensional sustainable solutions that leverage innovative technologies to move away from paper, plastic, or styrofoam packaging.
The first is Notpla, a start-up based in England that uses a technology that converts brown seaweed and other plants into edible food packaging. The technology completely replaces plastic packaging and can be used for liquids and dry food. Because seaweed accounts for around half of all global mariculture production, using seaweed-based packaging actively contributes to de-acidifying the ocean and promotes aquaculture. Moreover, to produce this packaging, Notpla generates income for rural coastal communities, and is contributing to the increase of women’s presence in aquaculture [v].
The second is CleanTech’s Bio-Lutions, a company based out of Germany that converts food residue such as banana peels and sugarcane leaves into 100 percent compostable single-use food packaging that is also free of plastic or paper material. Bio-Lutions connects with local farmers to collect the agricultural residue and provides them with additional income, which also promotes stronger localization [vi].
The third is Ecovative’s Mushroom Packaging, a company based out of New York. Ecovative makes a fiber-made solution made from hemp hurds (plant fibres) and fungus sprouts (mycelia). This technology takes advantage of mushroom’s natural growth capacity by mixing them with seedlings and other agricultural residues [vi]. A key strength of mycelium is that it can be assembled at room temperature into any shape with minimal energy.
Fortunately, both BioLutions and Mushroom Packaging are grown or ‘upcycled’ using renewable materials and are 100 percent biodegradable and compostable [vi] [vii]. Based on our review around costs and scalability [LST1], we identified that the most commercially viable technology today is Ecovative’s Mushroom Packaging.
Mushroom Packaging has been rigorously tested to be thermally insulative as well as water resistant. This process contributes to a reduction of CO2 emissions in the agricultural and packaging industry to rethink agricultural waste. This alternative technology supports individuals and institutions to achieve SDG 12 targets. In doing so, the process ensures efficient use and preservation of natural resources thereby giving rise to circular economic models. Mycelium-grown products are not a panacea, and the product has its limitations [viii] [ix]. For example, the mycelium-based packaging can only be used for the packaging of dry commodities. Despite this, mushroom packaging’s limitation could actually serve as an opportunity for certain emergency relief supplies. For example, aid organizations, such as USAID, could explore converting the Ready-to Use Therapeutic Food Commodity (RUTF) packaging from sachets to the mycelium-based packaging, thereby contributing to a global reduction in humanitarian packaging waste.
These types of alternative solutions contribute to generating income and improving livelihoods (SDG 1), economic growth (SDG 8), promoting gender equity and opportunity (SDG 5 and SDG 10) and strengthening more partnerships and stakeholder ownership in meeting the UN’s Agenda 2030 (SDG 17). Sustainable innovative technologies have the potential to change the way farmers contribute to life, but costs are high. For instance, when a standard plastic grocery bag costs about a penny to produce [x] and Mushroom Packaging costs approximately USD 2.5 to 3, these solutions are capital intensive, and passing these costs over to the consumer may affect their willingness to pay for certain products and services. Therefore, prioritizing investments in research and development (R&D) must address affordability and scalability, reinforcing all stakeholders to play an active role in achieving SDG 12.
To support this process, we have also identified three policy recommendations to reduce plastic pollution. First, we recommend promoting more public-private partnerships (PPP); PPP can promote access to R&D, especially for smaller companies with more limited capital. Second, we recommend a plastic-user-fee policy as a disincentive to single-use plastics in stores and restaurants. Finally, because global interdependence on trade is growing, the expectation to trade sustainably must grow accordingly. Stronger international trade compliance and enforcement in international food packaging export/imports subsequently is key and we recommend encouraging governments, as part of Free Trade Agreements, to step up their enforcement of sustainability in (international) food packaging and distribution materials [xi]. Addressing the above ensures that food packaging does not limit our ability to achieve a sustainable transformation under the 2030 Agenda.
i. Jam Jams Group. What is the importance of agricultural packaging? [Online] 09 04, 2019. https://www.jamjamgroup.com/en/what-is-the-importance-of-agricultural-packaging/.
ii. Laura Parker. “A Whopping 91 Percent of Plastic Isn’t Recycled.” The National Geographic. July 09, 2019. online]. https://www.nationalgeographic.org/article/whopping-91-percent-plastic-isnt-recycled/
iii. Cassou, Emilie. Agricultural Pollution Plastics. [Online] 03 23, 2018. https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/bitstream/handle/10986/29505/124346-repl-WB-Knowledge-Plastic.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y.
iv. Braich, Gurneet, et al. Managing plastic and food waste for a sustainable future. [Online] 2020. World Bank Group. https://datatopics.worldbank.org/sdgatlas/goal-12-responsible-consumption-and-production/.
v. Notpla. Notpla. [Online] 2020. https://www.notpla.com/technology/.
vi. Bio-lutions. Renaturing the world of materials. [Online] 2019. https://www.bio-lutions.com.
vii. Sustainability Guide. Mushroom packaging. [Online] 2018. https://sustainabilityguide.eu/?guide=mushroom-packaging.
viii. Ecovative. Mushroom Packaging. [Online] 2021. https://mushroompackaging.com.
ix. Gunther, Marc. Can mushrooms replace plastic? The Guardian. [Online] 10 22, 2013. https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/mushrooms-new-plastic-ecovative.
x. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/01/weekinreview/01basics.html
xi. Weber-Lortsch, Deloitte. Sustainability as an integral part of trade compliance. Deloitte. [Online] https://www2.deloitte.com/ch/en/pages/tax/articles/sustainability-as-an-integral-part-of-trade-compliance.html