The disposal design
In indoor farming we often focus on plastic use during production, what material are trays made of etc. Yet, another area heavily plasticized is the packaging of goods. When we think of design we often think of product packaging and company image in order to convince a client to buy product X instead of product Y. Additionally to that, marketing focuses on creating a trust bond between client and the best choice of product they want to buy. It is a very simplistic way to put it, I know, but think of those last few items you bought of leafy or microgreens: how many did not have plastic wrapping?
Working in a small group allowed me to interact with producers and retailers, and to realize that we all think of recycling as separation of material by the consumer. Also we think of recycling as the main sustainable way to dispose material. As a Biologist I find that a mistake. We all prefer minimal effort to use and dispose of objects, food is no exception. As such I believe products, in all their layers, should fit in the same line of disposal, e.g. food goes to the organic or regular garbage bin, so all the wrapping of food should be disposed in that same bin. Therefore, food needs to be wrapped in material of low, or no impact (think of no wrapping at all for example), when you dispose of it. Most people don’t separate garbage in general, so a good design should avoid mixing materials (e.g. double layered with plastic and paper), or the use of wrapping that has mixed components (e.g paper with plastic seal). A single material facilitates the decision when throwing leftovers away. Even for retail systems I believe that one line of disposal would reduce environmental impact. In the end, whatever products a retailer has at the end of their shelf-life, disposal will be direct. Do we really see a retailer having workers opening each bag of leafy greens to dispose of organics and recycle plastic?
At this point in time I believe indoor farming can make that extra step on their sustainability efforts, as biodegradable and sometimes even compostable packaging is now entering the market. We have to love tech which allows us to wrap food in materials that look like conventional plastics, giving us the same visual effect and practical function, but that are not conventional plastics. Biofilms, organic sealed paper, bamboo, coconut fibre, mushroom leather and textiles are some of the materials giving us opportunities to innovate in food packaging that could lower impact at the disposal point.
Another sector that might benefit from rethinking their packaging is the upcoming turnkey solutions market. At the time that I was working in a turnkey solution, it involved a container, substrate and seeds growing from beginning till end and then reaching the consumer without extra handling. I saw a challenge: how can we make it so that all components are of the same disposable chain? All components need to be of materials which could be disposed of in the organic (in countries it exists) or non-differentiated bin (so it could go to the biodegradable systems later). In general, the idea was to have packaging, substrate etc that was capable of being compostable. That way, even if you have the packages in a supermarket, when they have to dispose of it, for some reason, all would be degradable. My line of thinking is: Whatever an indoor farmer packs it in needs to allow people and retailers to throw it in one bin. That, as a challenge, does not sound too difficult to design. However, currently, in my point of view and experience so far, for any turnkey solution, the challenge is to find materials that can resist the production cycle. How to handle warm, humid environments, LED light etc and keep their “clean” capacity. How to avoid the growth of unwanted algae, bacteria and fungi, for example. How to keep its material integrity throughout the growing cycle, how not to affect growth cycles even. Should you even pack it at all?
To those who are working on these challenges, it would be great to read and hear from you. How do you envision food and its packaging disposal? Is anyone considering the life cycle assessment of their packaging, or any similar evaluations? Can they compete with plastic prices?
Whatever the future holds for indoor farming I hope it incorporates human behaviour and new materials into the design and handling of food, so it can provide the best life cycle and lowest impact possible when we dispose of it.