Plastic dominates the packaging world. But does it have to? There are clever companies out there developing amazing alternatives to plastic. And they’re using sustainable, natural resources to do it — from leaves to seaweed!
Let’s take a look at the alternatives and consider how we can get more brands to switch to them.
Did you know that fallen palm leaves make for great packaging? They drop from Areca palm trees found in Southeast Asia, Australia and East Africa. They’re collected and sorted by quality, and are turned into catering disposables, like bowls, plates and trays.
The leaves are pushed into shape using a hydraulic press and heat. The heat ensures that any moisture evaporates and the steam kills any leftover bacteria.
Palm leaves are naturally waterproof and great thermal insulators, which makes them ideal for hot food, too. Most importantly, because the leaves fall naturally, no forests are cleared to harvest them.
You might be imagining leaves woven together, but the result is a material that looks like wood!
Packaging company, Notpla, combines brown seaweed with plants to create a material that looks and works like plastic, but is anything but.
Brown seaweed is one of nature’s most renewable resources. It can grow up to one metre per day, and doesn’t compete with food crops, doesn’t need fresh water or fertiliser, and actively contributes to de-acidifying our oceans.
You may have seen seaweed packaging in action if you followed the 2019 London Marathon. Somewhat futuristically, Notpla created thousands of edible water bottles to hand out to runners!
As it’s 100% natural, the packaging breaks down naturally in compost in just four to six weeks.
Notpla also creates sachets for sauces from seaweed, which are being distributed by Just Eat, and uses it to line cardboard takeaway containers. This makes cardboard water and greaseproof without the need for plastic.
Notpla is also developing wrappers and packets for dry foods, nets for garlic and oranges, and non-food sachets for things like screws and nails. This could save huge amounts of plastic waste if more brands adopt it. Notpla’s contact page says its “overwhelmed by requests”, so maybe it’s happening as we speak!
Mushroom packaging is made from mycelium, which is found in the roots of mushrooms. The mycelium is combined with hemp and flour, and left to grow into the shape of packaging using moulds. After a few days, the packaging is dried to prevent further growth, and then it’s ready to use. It sounds like something from a sci-fi film, but it’s legit!
Mushroom packaging is an excellent alternative to polystyrene. Dell has used it to package its servers, and Ikea announced it will it use it to replace all of its polystyrene packaging.
Polystyrene, a type of plastic, is rarely collected for recycling by UK councils — the majority ends up in landfill sites. Mushroom packaging breaks down in home compost in a matter of weeks. Come on, brands — it’s time to embrace fungi.
Bagasse is a bi-product of sugarcane, which was typically just disposed of. But now, Bagasse is used across the takeaway catering industry as a replacement to disposables made from wood and plastics.
Bagasse is a much more eco-friendly alternative to paper. It doesn’t require deforestation, and it’s naturally grease and water resistant, so there’s no need for an additional coating. This saves on resources, and is the reason why some papers are so hard to recycle.
Like all of the materials we’ve mentioned, Bagasse is 100% natural and breaks down quickly in the natural environment. It’s another no-brainer alternative to plastic!
What happens next?
Plastic continues to be the top choice for packaging because it’s so cheap. Until brands are held accountable for their use of plastic, we can’t see this changing on a large scale any time soon.
Governments need to incentivise brands to switch to alternatives to plastic. Taxing manufacturers that use single-use plastic could do just that. The UK government is currently considering a tax, but it would only apply to packaging that is not made from at least 30% recycled plastic. Unfortunately, this doesn’t really solve the problem.
Read more: The problem with plastic recycling
The UK government is taking some positive steps. This year, it pledged £60 million to the Smart Sustainable Plastic Packaging challenge, which aims to find innovative alternatives to single-use plastic. And just this week (October 2019), the government announced a new environmental bill that aims to tackle “the scourge of plastics and pollution”.
Thankfully, more brands are prioritising sustainability of their own volition, like Dell and Ikea. Pressure from shoppers also works. Thanks to people power, Sainsburys has promised to halve its plastic usage.
You can make an impact by reaching out to your favourite brands to ask how they are planning to make their packaging more sustainable. The more noise we make, the more likely we are to see change.
In the meantime, avoid plastic where you can! Head to our beginner’s guide to reducing plastic and join our mailing list for monthly tips. Check out our zero-waste subscription box to discover amazing alternatives to plastic each month.
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