It can take 450 years for this plastic to break down, so why not use more sustainable alternatives?

Sustainable materials every designer should know

Through the years 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic has been produced, resulting in 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste. And although plastic is recyclable, that doesn’t necessarily mean it biodegrades. Did you know that it can take 450 years for some types of plastic to break down? So, why are we using materials that take hundreds of years to break down, when we have so many sustainable alternatives?

Here are 7 inspiring sustainable materials you probably never even thought about…

  1. Micro-Fibrillated Cellulose (MFC)

Micro-Fibrillated Cellulose (MFC), a unique fiber extracted from plant waste, is used to strengthen and lighten fiber products sustainably. Since it derived from crops — not from trees — it provides a much more competitive price point than other cellulose products.

The technology has a great number of benefits ranging from improved crack resistance and efficient rheology aid to reducing material while maintaining performance. In addition, it’s stronger and stiffer than glass or carbon fiber but much lighter in weight. You can significantly enhance product performance with minimal additions of the material to existing substrates. MFC is especially a great alternative for modified atmosphere packaging such as glass and plastic in the food industry thanks to its ability to keep water and air out.

Elopak Pure-Pak carton with Stora Enso paperboard

2. Corn, potatoes and sugarcane bioplastics

Bioplastics made from renewable resources like corn, potatoes and sugarcane take 68% less oil to make PLA, making plant-based biopolymers an eco-friendly plastic replacer. In addition, these biopolymers are being produced by a wide range of companies and are designed to span packaging uses that range from flexible films, food serviceware, to thermoformed and form/fill/seal packaging.

A great example is Paperfoam. This industrial starch based solution is an ultra light, hassle-free, responsible and eco-friendly solution for manufacturers and consumers. In addition, they prove that packaging can be as green as it gets and still look luxurious.

Isothermal Paperfoam packaging: Naturally Clicquot

3. Bamboo

This giant member of the grass family is a true friend of the environment. Not only does it reduce our packaging-related carbon footprint, it also grows quickly and the plants deep root systems protect against soil erosion. You probably know bamboo from a variety of applications ranging from bicycles to clothing. But what you might not know is that it is also a highly sustainable alternative to foams, corrugate and molded paper pulp. Plus, the fact that bamboo is so tough makes it perfect for packaging solutions that require strength and flexibility.

Dell bamboo packaging

4. Natural fibre

Bananas, coconuts, palm leaves, softwood forestry by-products, grasses and cereal stalks have the potential to be molded into any shape or turned into bioplastics. By melting or pressing and then injecting them into molds, the biomaterials can perfectly compete with petroleum-based plastics. The packaging materials share characteristics with those made by petroleum but the latter is completely biodegradable and non-toxic. Even better, thanks to its vegetable origin it can even be used as fertilizer once degraded.

Biodegradable packaging using coconut fiber

5. Micro-organic materials

Organic materials like fungi, algae, seaweed and other bacteria based materials are seeing an uprise. These materials are 100% biodegradable and can be manipulated to grow in certain shapes and colors. A few examples:

Agar, a gelatinous substance derived from boiling seaweed can be used to create textures that can replace bubble wrap, plastic bottles and foam packaging.

Agar bottle and bubble wrap solutions

Another option is the “mushroom-based plastic” Myco-foam. It has the same properties as plastic but is produced from mycelium, a fungal network of threadlike cells. In addition it is 100% natural, 100% biodegradable and breaks down in just a few weeks returning nutrients to earth instead of polluting polystyrene.

Myco-foam packaging

6. Edible food wrappers

With consumers becoming more and more annoyed by wasteful packaging in the food industry, brands and scientists are constantly on the lookout for an eco-friendly solution. The popular Japanese Botan Rice Candy, with an edible clear rice-paper wrapper was an inspiration for companies like Wikicells and Loliware to create an edible solution that offers sanitary protection.

Japanese Botan Rice Candy & Wikicells nature inspired edible packaging

As a result, there are a variety of sustainable food wrappers on the market, ranging from frozen yogurt pearls to edible drinking cups. The packaging also breaks down quickly when thrown away. Although this changes the rules for food packaging design, it creates a whole new world of possibilities to communicate a message.

Loliware edible cups

Not ready for this just yet? Another great more versatile option is Lactip. Lactip is quite new and unknown but offers many opportunities for packaging in the agriculture, food and pharmaceutical industry. Lactip are thermoplastic pellets made out of milk proteins that can be used as a raw material for thermoforming, films, or any kind of plastic applications. Not only do they have a high usability because you can shape them however you please through the use of heat, they are also 100% biodegradable, edible and dissolve in water.

Lactip packaging

7. Circular thinking packaging

Are you a fan of circular thinking? Then ECOR is the answer for you. An advanced corporate waste solution made from cellulose fibre waste (think wasted cardboard, paper etc.). ECOR creates a 100% non-toxic, bio-based building and design material that is easily manipulatable with heat and pressure. It’s a great alternative for traditional wood-based and plastic materials suitable for applications such as graphics/signage, packaging, construction, architecture and design, furniture, fixtures and consumer products.

ECOR packaging

With so many sustainable alternatives out there, it’s a designers responsibility to introduce and convince brands of the possibilities these materials offer.


This blog is part of “The Magnificent Seven”, a series that explores the impact and influence of design with a weekly dose of must know. If you have any questions related to design, send a message to hello@reggs.com and we’ll write about it.