Packaging Tomorrow’s World Today

We live in a world with a man-made garbage patch twice the size of Texas floating around our oceans and landfill sites full of our human-fashioned toxic and non-degradable materials.

Plastics clutter our lives, however useful they might be in certain situations. It was estimated by Professor Geyer that out of the 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic produced since the 1950s, just 12% had been incinerated, 9% had been recycled and 79% had dispersed into our landfills and extended environment, and this was by 2015. Simply put, the vast majority still remains, haunting us and our ecosystem to this day.

It’s not all bad news though…

As people become more aware of their social responsibilities to reduce their negative impact on the global community we have seen a growing trend of eco-friendly, ‘green’, packaging. The idea is becoming increasingly viable, no longer just a hippie’s pipe-dream. The desire for reusable, recyclable, responsibly ‘green’ products is becoming apparent and ever more tangible. We should all do our bit to help mother earth and all her wonders stay wonderful, one decision at a time, packaged in the latest eco-friendly solutions.

I still find it hard to walk through the shops without spotting the old-school, if not somewhat evolved, packaging of the 1990s and 2000s, which I grew up around. The packaging is often predominantly plastic and bulky, environmentally damaging and quite often frustrating to deal with — think of trying to open a new pair of scissors, without say, a pair of scissors! Personally, I avoid purchasing these products, but there must still be a solid demand if these goods are still being manufactured and sold in the quantities they crop up on store shelves…or perhaps they don’t sell and sit in a state of non-degredation. Either way, it seems there is some way to go before everyone is convinced and comfortable in leaving the old guard behind for better solutions. Just like a child outgrows their plastic dinosaurs, so too should we grow up and repackage the way we see the world and live in it.

With advances in science and understanding of our impact on our natural earthly space, we are constantly striving to find solutions and advancements in material technologies. Hopefully these efforts will guide the current and future generations towards days where our global footprint will leave our world without so much pollution, possibly even working in tandem with our planet to give it, and simultaneously ourselves, a helping hand with green fingers.

This mini-series will take a look at what a completely green consumer cycle could look like, through the eyes of eco- packaging. From edible wrappings and eco-friendly transportation packaging materials to possibilities of how we might dispose of our packaging waste, perhaps even within our own homes, without creating a toxic, problematic and damaging legacy for our global home.

I’ll be examining forward-thinking companies chomping at the bit and exploring the products they have created to transform the landscape and how we package our products. All with a healthy dose of idealised musing of a friendlier tomorrow. Everyone from consumer to marketers, copywriters to manufacturers and even delivery companies could benefit from taking part in the era of Green Revolution.

My hope is that I will demonstrate we are already at a point where we can live the lives we lead, with a few necessary, but ultimately minimal and positive, changes to our lifestyles, whilst completely transforming the way we demand and consume goods.

First up is an exciting frontier of packaging design and also a personal favourite of mine: Edible Packaging!

Edible Packaging

Edible packaging is exactly what it sounds like — packaging you can eat! Currently it is being produced in a few differing forms, source materials and methods of production. From building membranes for frozen treats like WikiFoods’ WikiCells, to the processing of seaweed for a plethora of uses as Indonesian company Evoware and UK-based Skipping Rocks Lab’s Ooho water pouches, edible food packaging is beginning to make an impact on the consumer market.

I feel it is worth mentioning that the genies of edible packaging utilise differing source-materials to achieve their end goal. Most current compositions use a combination of plants in concurrence with other natural extracts and largely depends on what the predominant accessible resource is. As this is the case, the method of manufacture and rate of biodegradation and therefore longevity can differ dramatically between products.

By and large edible packaging is water soluble and can be categorised into a larger group of packaging products: dissolvable packaging — which I will discuss in more detail in a future article. Others are designed to be compostable in the same manner as other food produce and will degrade in similar time-frames to any other fruit and vegetable. As there is no singular method of creating edible packaging, or indeed standard base-materials to work with, there is much scope for manufacturers to create their products with ever greening technologies — The greener the total process the better, right?

Perhaps we will see a new tech-revolution in packaging production, my thought here being that the most overall sustainable companies will likely be at the forefront of consumer and business minds alike, hopefully unfolding a new and long lasting era of harmonious consumption.

I digress a little through the sheer excitement at what this (very attainable) future could hold…

Edible Bottles, displayed at Le Laboratoire

My journey into the exploration of edible packaging transported me to the early 2010s, where a creative team comprising of Harvard professor and bio-engineer Dr David Edwards, biologist Dr Don E. Ingber set out to produce a new edible packaging. Their result was the invention of the WikiCell. The voyage would see them demonstrate their concept in the form of the Edible Bottle. Designed in partnership with French designer François Azambourg, the work was displayed, to great plaudits, in Paris, 2012 at Le Laboratoire.

The WikiCell, later to enter the US market as WikiPearls, is comprised of natural plant materials, broken down and reformed into a dual layered sheath-like membrane. The membrane encapsulates the product within, creating a protective barrier to dirt and germs as well as acting as a preservative. The technology utilises the natural concept of foods such as eggs and grapes — both use natural barriers to keep their contents safe.

The materials used in the WikiCell aren’t a miracle cure to the packaging solution however. Their GoYum Ice Cream Grapes and Frozen Yoghurts Grapes, with flavoured skins to match the inner flavour, are designed to hang in grocery grocery store freezers and have a shelf life of around 6 months. Fairly ingenious really! Of course a shelf life of only 6 months may be suitable for a product such as this, but where does that leave products that demand longer storage time? But then again, does it really matter? Could we not just take a closer, more efficient look at our supply and demand cycles?

The individual nature of the products in the market raises questions over how the product is delivered en-masse without the use of extraneous packaging and could leave a more germaphobic consumer a little concerned about the cleanliness of the air- contacted product.

But fear not! Efforts to address concerns regarding hygiene and safety have been taken into account in the design stages. Dr David Edwards, himself pointed this out when he told Business Insider that the product is able to be washed like any other natural product, without compromising the integrity of the encased treat.

Whether it be a solid, mousse, foam or a liquid the dual membrane-system can contain and protect its contents, even if you give it a good wash; though an ultimately water soluble product can only spend so long immersed before changing its structure.

Being water soluble and the fact that WikiCells are made entirely of natural materials they have the ability to completely biodegrade, meaning that it is possible to discard them without harming our environment…but then again, who would throw away such interesting products?

Currently the food-tech is being used to sell frozen treats in the USA, has been adopted by WholeFoods US and Stonyfields, a Stateside company in the dairy/yoghurt industry. One of Stonyfields’ parent companies is global brand Danone, while WikiFoods themselves gained backing by venture capital firms Polaris Partners and Flagship Ventures for their move into the market. My feeling is that with the right interests and investments who knows what heights this ingenious packaging could reach.

Much like the rest of the products in this article, the proof positive product exists, leaving it down to the right investments to be made and healthy attitudes and visions to be created in order to welcome in a new era of responsible packaging.

Backtracking for a moment to hygiene, there are other companies out there fighting the good clean fight. One such example is the UK based company Pepceuticals, who won a grant to develop edible, anti-microbial film for meat. I would argue that although meat has its unique safety requirements, the development of such films would allow for greater understanding in how to safely increase the shelf-life of other products utilising edible food packaging.

Knowing it is possible to create edible packaging and that we have the option to consume it safely and cleanly, why hasn’t it yet caught on as a long-term major trend and industry?

Perhaps it’s the packaging itself. It’s all very well to be edible, but is it really that appealing, past the environmentally friendly aspect and the novelty? What does it taste like? How does it look on the shelf? What texture should I expect? All valid questions for the consumer and concerns for the designers.

Youngs’ Seafood navigates this issue in a novel way, drawing on the water-soluble properties of their product, creating their Simply Steam range of frozen seafood ready-meals. The food is wrapped in a clear film, allowing the company to show their consumers the product on offer. The film then turns into steam when microwaved, steam-cooking the food whist also providing a bio-friendly packaging. The taste and texture of the film becomes less of an issue if the packaging “disappears” when cooked! Youngs’ Seafood ‘Simply Steam’ range is available on the UK market in Tesco.

The packing of the Simply Steam range however remains reliant on extraneous packaging for branding purposes, in addition to providing nutritional information. So the question arises: how can companies package their product utilising edible packaging and at the same time still displaying all legally required information and promoting their brand?

An Indonesian company, Evoware, would appear to have the answer: edible packaging you can customise to stand in line with your brand identity and print onto with naturally sourced inks.

Evoware’s Seaweed-Based Edible Packaging

Evoware developed its seaweed-based packaging using the abundance of native Indonesian plants and works with local seaweed farmers to grow and source their material, giving their economy a boost whilst revolutionising the way to package products.

Boasting a two year, preservative free, shelf-life, Evoware’s printable and heat-sealable, 100% biodegradable, HACCP compliant (Halal certified), seaweed-based edible packaging also has the benefits of functioning as a natural plant fertiliser and even provides an extra nutritional boost — seaweed is high in fibre and packed full of vitamins and minerals.

The company sells its packaging in a growing number of variations. Predominantly in small and large formats. Examples of small format sales range across perishables like cereals to single-serving items such as instant noodle flavouring sachets and coffee powders. The larger form of the product can be bought, packaged in closed containers for sheets and shrink- wrapped rolls for sachets, meaning companies can wrap what they like, how they like it.

Interestingly, Evoware’s use of their edible packaging doesn’t stop at perishable goods. The Indonesian company also offers their product for use to wrap non-perishables. They advocate its use for packaging items as diverse as sanitary pads, toothpicks and bars of soap. This demonstrates another facet of edible packaging: just because we can eat it doesn’t mean we need to utilise the technology exclusively for packaging food.

Let’s take a moment to think of the implications. The idea of using packaging which is safe for human consumption could be indicative of a wide reaching packaging solution. We could focus on our species as the test-pilots and waste navigators — if we can safely consume and process the packaging we use, isn’t it likely to be better for our environment too?

Evoware are not alone in creating product packaging from a seaweed source, UK produced Ooho! water pouches are amongst a number of companies to use the concept; perhaps as the idea spreads more countries in our global community might begin to look into the exciting and sustainable prospect.

In offering flexible packaging options and branding opportunities, Evoware’s seaweed-based product, with its added health benefits, natural robustness and the smart utilisation of abundant cultivation space, appears to set the Indonesian company in good stead for the future. All this whilst simultaneously stimulating their local economy.

Talking of stoking economies, another reason we may not currently see as many companies jumping on board the edible band-wagon is the relatively expensive cost of production. Development of the technology in both sustainably sourcing and creating the packaging materials is still, realistically, in its infancy. Without serious investment for large-scale production, many companies, even those with fantastic products, struggle to scale up their manufacturing past a novelty item.

Making investments is not for the faint-hearted, so perhaps it is not a surprise that we don’t see more contemporary edibly- packaged products. With an ever greening world, there are numerous worthy ventures that all hold promise for a cleaner, more responsible tomorrow. The question then being, to which do you invest your millions in.

I believe one of the most important links in creating a greener world will start with eco-packaging and work its way outwards through refinement of manufacture and delivery, eventually reaching all other areas of our lives. If we can all hold the solution in our hands and feel the difference we are making, is it such a stretch to imagine more of humanity demanding a cleaner world?

Ooho! Water Pouches by Skipping Rocks Lab

As the technology becomes better understood and more readily available, invariably the associated costs will decrease too. This trend is one we have seen over time. You only have to take a look back over human history to see the proof. Aviation travel used to be a luxury when it first began to transport people across the world, now we can catch flights round the world at largely affordable prices.

Of course there are now differences in the quality of the gravity-defying journeys we can take, but then isn’t there always a luxury option? I would expect edible packaging as an industry to offer similar ranges in quality and cost. If celebrity chefs like Heston Blumenthal can produce luxurious ranges of salted caramel with edible packaging (and a recipe adapted for cooking at home), surely others will follow suit.

It is easy to see how there may be a variety in the ingredients used, from the basic packaging through to the carefully balanced, nutritionally complimentary casings. I would say that the primary goal of companies involved in the endeavour should primarily focus on creating this packaging to save the planet, rather than line their pockets.

Let’s not too get carried away with the financial implications for now though. We still have a way to go before the notion of edible packaging is accepted, adopted and demanded by the general public.

There are still questions we need to ask and answer before we see the rise of edible packaging, like how does it all taste and smell?

As with WikiPearls, it is possible to flavour your edible packaging to mirror the contents, or even to compliment your goods. Diageo have created flavoured straws to partner drinks. Imagine a cola and lime tasting straw used to drink a vodka coke or adding a refreshing cucumber taste to your gin & tonic. Ok so this is not strictly packaging, but the fundamental concept is the same and easy to transfer…Think of a salt and vinegar flavoured film that will steam cook your fish and chips and leave you with the perfect balance of chip shop flavours; or additional vitamins encased within your edible packaging to provide you with a brilliantly balanced meal.

Within the packaging industry, the R&D sector has on the whole been seeing the greatest investment. To me this suggests that the established giants of the food packaging industry (as well as the challenger companies) have become keenly aware of the importance in redeveloping the manner in which goods are packaged. Not only to be cost effective in production, but also tapping into the demand to shift from the pollutant ways of yesterday and today, onto and towards an environmentally friendly trajectory.

It feels to me a little like a C21st technology battle or a down to earth space race in some respects — the first company to dominate the edible packaging market could claim a hugely influential position as the ‘go-to’ brand for decades to come. No wonder the market is expected to grow significantly in the upcoming years.

In my opinion it is possible, if not downright likely, this sector will continue to grow at a mouthwatering rate that savvy companies would be remiss not to take a bite out of.

Article by Kieran Katwala, Junior Copywriter