Dorota Bartosik is senior manager for new ventures marketing at MonoSol, LLC
The reputation of plastic drinking straws took a serious turn last year. Restaurants, bars, hotels, resorts and governments banned them. Manufacturers were tasked with finding replacement materials, including paper and stainless steel. Overnight, straws became the poster child for everything that’s wrong with the way we eat and the enormous amount of plastic waste it produces.
This trend isn’t going away, and straws are just the beginning of a much broader movement toward plastic reduction and more sustainable food packaging. But balancing convenience and sustainability is no small feat.
Enterprising companies and innovators have experimented with eco-friendly containers such as wrapping produce in banana leaves, 3-D printing straws made of sugar and agar, and building hand-shaped bowls from mushroom roots. Others have looked at ways to enhance recycling, composting or reusable food and beverage containers.
Then there’s the concept of edible wrappers, which is as old as nature itself. Fruits and vegetables of all kinds have an outer peel or rind to protect and keep them fresh. With edible film, the added dimension of solubility opens up a range of possibilities in which pasta, rice, oatmeal, cocoa, instant coffee, food coloring, oatmeal and drink mixes could be portioned into packets that dissolve during prep instead of being discarded and destined for the landfill.
The adoption of soluble, edible films by protein supplement manufacturers is another example. Within the past year, several companies have introduced protein powder supplements in pre-measured, single-use packets that are made of food-grade ingredients. The packet dissolves in water or milk to create a ready-to-drink protein shake.
Soluble, edible films can be made from a well-known ingredient, such as gelatin, or a non-toxic polymer made from either naturally occurring or synthetically derived carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. This film makes an ideal packaging substrate for food-grade applications for which the intended product is added to liquid. The same technology has long been used in all kinds of everyday products, like coatings for pharmaceuticals designed to dissolve on the tongue. The film is GRAS, vegan, halal and kosher, and has been reviewed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
In applications where the film is not intended to be consumed as part of the product, it can be dissolved almost immediately in water and disposed down the drain where it is eaten by microorganisms, leaving behind nothing but water and carbon dioxide.
As today’s consumers look more closely into the effects of packaging materials on the environment, concerns about plastic waste in the ocean are especially prevalent and will drive brands to act. In its recently published guide, “Plastic Pollution: Single Use Impact on Our Oceans,” SLO Active, a social enterprise dedicated to cleaning up our oceans, reported that 10-20 million tons of plastic end up in our oceans every year. More notably, plastics and polystyrene foam comprise 90% of all marine debris, with single-use food and beverage containers being one of the most common items found in ocean and coastal surveys.
Against this backdrop, the overriding benefit of edible single-serve packaging that is also soluble is a package- and microplastics-free delivery system.
Consumer packaged goods companies are facing more — and different — competition and pressures today, particularly as smaller companies introduce effective new business models to the marketplace. Amid these pressures, convenience and sustainability shouldn’t be viewed as contradictory goals. Packaging innovation can help deliver products that are differentiated or offer better value, which is critically important both today and for sustained growth.