5 innovative materials to replace plastic in packaging


5 innovative materials to replace plastic in packaging

The environmental impact of plastic on our ecosystem is a pressing concern that requires urgent attention. Plastic, with its widespread usage and convenience, has become an integral part of our daily lives. However, its durability and resistance to decomposition have led to a mounting ecological crisis. From clogging our oceans and waterways to harming wildlife and leaching harmful chemicals into the environment, plastic pollution has reached alarming levels.

To combat this environmental challenge, researchers and scientists have been diligently exploring alternative biomaterials that can replace plastic without compromising on functionality and convenience. These innovative materials promise to reduce our dependency on plastic and mitigate its harmful effects on the environment.

In the search for a better alternative to plastic, certain materials have emerged as the new face of sustainable packaging, such as mushroom packaging, polylactic acid plastic packaging, chitosan-based packaging, and bagasse packaging. These innovative materials offer biodegradability and reduced environmental impact, providing a promising step towards a greener and more sustainable future for packaging solutions.

Mushroom packaging

Mushroom packaging is an innovative and eco-friendly alternative to traditional plastic materials. It utilizes mycelium, the root system of mushrooms, to create biodegradable and compostable packaging. The benefits of mushroom packaging are manifold.

Firstly, it is highly biodegradable, breaking down naturally without leaving harmful residues behind. This addresses the critical issue of plastic pollution in our environment. Additionally, mushroom packaging is lightweight yet strong and durable, making it suitable for various applications, such as protective packaging for fragile items and insulation materials.

Furthermore, it requires less energy and resources to produce compared to conventional plastics, reducing its carbon footprint. Mushroom-based packaging uses just 12% of the energy used in plastic production. This is a significant upgrade and further makes the case for the widespread adoption of mushroom-based packaging.

IKEA is one of the most well-known brands using mushroom-based packaging. They have been using mycelium-based packaging for their furniture products for a while. The packaging is made from a material called MycoComposite by Ecovative, which is a combination of mycelium (the root structure of mushrooms) and agricultural by-products. MycoComposite is a sustainable alternative to polystyrene foam, which is commonly used in furniture packaging. It is also compostable, so it can be disposed of without harming the environment.

Seaweed packaging

Seaweed packaging is another eco-friendly alternative gaining traction in the quest to reduce plastic waste. This packaging material boasts exceptional biodegradability and compostability, breaking down naturally without harming the environment. Its sustainable nature addresses the pressing issue of plastic pollution in our oceans and landfills.

Moreover, one of the unique advantages of seaweed packaging is its edibility, making it not only safe for the environment but also safe for consumption. Seaweed has been used in Asian cuisines and medicines for years. This is why its edibility isn’t quite surprising. Being edible, it offers the potential for a circular economy where packaging can be consumed along with its contents.

Seaweed PackagingSeaweed Packaging

Loliware and Evoware are leading brands helping eradicate single-use plastic with the production of edible seaweed packaging like straws and cups. Also, Notpla, formerly known as Skipping Rocks Lab, has developed "Ooho" spheres for holding drinking water made from seaweed extract. This approach offers a sustainable solution to combat plastic waste in a unique way.

💡Check out our list of the top suppliers of seaweed as low-carbon materials here

Polylactic Acid (PLA) plastics

PLA is derived from renewable resources such as corn starch or sugarcane, making it biodegradable and compostable, which addresses the critical issue of plastic pollution. Its production generates fewer greenhouse gas emissions compared to traditional plastics, reducing its environmental impact. PLA plastics can replace single-use plastics in various applications, such as packaging, disposable cutlery, and food containers, without compromising on functionality.

However, despite being biodegradable, PLA requires specific industrial composting facilities to break down efficiently. The production of PLA relies on agricultural resources, which could raise concerns about competition with food production and land use. TotalEnergies Corbion is one of the biggest producers of PLA plastic for packaging.

💡Check out our list of the top bioplastics and bio-based plastics suppliers here

Bagasse packaging

Bagasse packaging is made from sugarcane fibers left over after juice extraction. It is created through a process that involves collecting the residue from sugarcane processing and converting it into various packaging products, such as food containers, plates, and trays.

It exhibits excellent heat stability, making it suitable for hot food and beverages without losing its shape or integrity. This feature is particularly advantageous for the takeout and food service industries. Additionally, bagasse packaging is highly biodegradable, breaking down naturally over time and leaving minimal environmental impact. Servous makes bowls and bags that can be used for a wide range of applications.

Bagass, a material made from sugarcane fibersBagass, a material made from sugarcane fibers

Chitosan-based films

Chitosan-based films are derived from chitin, a natural polysaccharide found in the exoskeleton of crustaceans, such as shrimp and crab shells. The production process involves deacetylating chitin to obtain chitosan, which is then processed into films using various techniques. Chitosan-based films are biodegradable, reducing plastic pollution. Also, chitosan possesses antimicrobial properties, which can help extend the shelf life of packaged products and reduce food waste.

Chitosan-based films can be weak and brittle, which can limit their use for some packaging applications. Their water sensitivity can lead to reduced mechanical properties and shelf life, limiting their use in certain packaging applications.

Chitosan-based films, despite their biodegradable nature, raise significant ethical concerns as they exploit substances derived from living organisms, disrupting the balance of natural ecosystems. Moreover, their production competes with food supplies, utilizing resources that could otherwise be directed towards feeding the global population, hence posing a significant drawback to their adoption as the optimal packaging solution.

Challenges and limitations of new materials

Innovative materials like mushroom packaging, seaweed packaging, PLA plastics, bagasse packaging, and chitosan-based films offer eco-friendly alternatives to conventional plastics, contributing to reducing plastic waste.

However, challenges persist for each material. For example, mushroom packaging faces issues with scaling up production, seaweed packaging requires efficient sourcing and processing methods, PLA plastics demand specific composting facilities, bagasse packaging may lack water resistance, and chitosan-based films can have higher production costs and water sensitivity.

To overcome these limitations, ongoing research, technological advancements, and sustainable practices are essential in realizing the full potential of these materials for a greener future. In the case of mushroom packaging, research efforts can focus on optimizing mycelium growth conditions and genetic engineering to accelerate production rates. As for seaweed packaging, it is important to ensure that the material is sourced from sustainable seaweed farming practices. In the case of PLA, investment in composting infrastructure as well as public awareness campaigns can promote wider access to industrial composting facilities (indeed, PLA labeled as biodegradable and compostable can be buried in the soil but should not be thrown into the ocean or other waterbodies).

💡Check out our marketplace of 1000+ material suppliers here


How to (really) end the single-use plastic epidemic? | tocco. (n.d.).

Materials from living things: embracing the biomaterial revolution | tocco. (n.d.).

Plastics in the Marine Environment - Eunomia. (2018, October 31). Eunomia.

Steffen, A. D., & Steffen, A. D. (2019). IKEA Starts Using Compostable Mushroom-Based Packaging For Its Products.

Intelligent Living.

Written by Anh N. on 02/08/2023

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