Bowls made of mushrooms, cups made of seaweed, and pods made of detergent: designers are creating temporary plastic substitutes. But are we ready to accept them?
Around the table scattered with Exacto knives, bowls, cutting boards, tape, funnels and sack powder, mushroom parts and sugar, a dozen graduate students from the Department of Packaging and Industrial Design at Brooklyn Pratt College in New York brainstormed.
Their profile? Create new forms of food packaging to replace the unsustainable designs that modern life relies on: disposable plastic beverage cups, lids, straws and bottles.
Focusing on the long-lived debris that usually accompanies take-out meals, the students baked 3D printed straws made of sugar and agar and used 3D printed straws. Agar is a gelatinous substance extracted from seaweed. They shape the bowl shape by hand from the mycelium (the thread-like root of the mushroom). A team designed some black plastic flakes, which are folded into the take-out container (as shown in the picture above), which can be returned to the collection point by the take-out chain consortium for disinfection and unlimited use. Another duo made an ingenious cardboard box with a self-folding fork/spoon combination that diners would tear from the perforated edge (above). After lunch, everything is stacked in the compost bin. Of course, in an ideal world, the compost bin will never be far away from it.
“As the unintended consequences of plastic become more apparent locally and globally, the demand for packaging alternatives is increasing dramatically,” said Kate Daly of Closed Loop Partners, a social impact investment fund focused on waste.
Of the 78 million tons of plastic packaging produced globally each year, only 14% are recycled. The light-weight and floatable plastic that escapes the collection flows into our oceans (9 million tons per year), most of which come from developing countries that lack management of this infrastructure. As these countries become more affluent, it is inevitable to start eating more packaged foods, and as many other countries in the increasingly convenient world continue to buy meals and grocery services (produce large amounts of packaging) and deliver them, it is expected The problem will become more serious. food.
More serious recycling will be a boon, but it is not a panacea. Recycling requires the transportation of energy, water and materials. Most recycled plastics are shredded, melted and re-made into commodities (such as wood, wool or carpets), which are eventually shipped to landfills. Manufacturers have been making bottles and shrink wraps thinner and thinner, but the fact remains: plastics are made from non-renewable resources (oil or natural gas), and most of them are not recycled.
But plastic is excellent in its use, which makes it very difficult to replace. Plastics can protect food for a long time, preventing food from stress, humidity, light and bacteria that accelerate decay. (Using polyethylene shrink packaging of cucumbers, the shelf life is extended from 3 days to 14 days. However, this kind of packaging may last more than a century.) Plastic is strong and transparent, allowing consumers to see what they are buying. Plastic raw materials are widely available and incredibly cheap. At least for now (yes.
Soon after the turn of the 20th century, food companies began to use soft wrapping paper made from plants called cellophane. Chemists later imitated this bio-based polymer with polyvinyl chloride and later less toxic polyethylene to make Saran wrappers. Although cellophane is compostable, the oil film and subsequent rigid plastic containers are not. The stage is ready for a discardable future.
The cucumber is shrink-packaged with polyethylene, and the shelf life is extended from three days to 14 days. However, this packaging may last more than a century.
Designers, engineers, biologists, investors and recyclers often work together to develop packaging that meets the requirements of the so-called circular economy.
It is a design framework that avoids the linear “acquisition, manufacture, waste” model from oil wells to refineries, from manufacturing plants to supermarkets, and from consumers to landfills. Instead, it envisions supply chains that continuously recycle old materials back to high-value products (focusing on durable design, remanufacturing, and reuse), as well as facilitating sharing and leasing (washing machines, cars) rather than ownership Business model. . In a circular economy, material goods circulate in two separate cycles. One uses the composting process to recover technical nutrients such as metals, minerals and polymers for reuse, the other uses the composting process to return biological materials (fiber, wood) to nature, or converts them to carbon neutral through anaerobic digestion energy.
In order to imagine the packaging of the future, many designers are looking for inspiration from the past. The Swedish research institute RISE has built a prototype of an almost flat cellulose-based container, for example, a soup maker can fill it with freeze-dried vegetables and spices. When the diners add hot water, the origami of the container folds into a complete, fully compostable bowl. The students at Pratt University used mycelium to shape a bowl, which grows in a week and composts in less than a month.
The Wyss Institute at Harvard University has created “shrilk,” a low-cost, fully compostable transparent plastic. Spinning made of chitosan derived from shrimp shells and silk protein derived from insects can be used to make films or rigid shapes. Unfortunately, it has not yet entered the field of food packaging because it requires manufacturers to adjust their machines.
Of course, the future of compostability depends on the universal availability and participation of consumers in municipal composting systems, which collect organic materials to convert them into fertilizer or energy. Hundreds of cities in the European Union, Canada and the United States are moving in this direction, but building a system may bring chicken and egg problems. For example, in New York City, the amount of available materials far exceeds the capabilities of nearby processors. However, investors are reluctant to build facilities without guarantees.