Consumers are finally pushing back against wasteful packaging, forcing companies to get creative in a way that’s boosting new, sustainable industries.
The other day my roommate brought home a couple of bacon-wrapped fillets for dinner. When it came time to throw them on the grill, I was shocked to find the meat duo ensconced in a horrible, rigid plastic blister pack. You know, the type normally reserved for electronics that usually results in a lot of swearing and brandishing of a kitchen knife? All for two, teeny little steaks.
Encouragingly, not all manufacturers are content to hand over pounds of unnecessary trash for you to figure out how to recycle. Over the past decade, companies have begun to realize that wasteful packaging is costly, and as consumers become more eco-aware, a strike against their brand. Some, like Dell, Coke, and Puma, are embracing alternative packaging materials that just a few years ago might have seemed like a joke. The result is a drastic reduction in waste, marketing clout, and the invigoration of low-impact industries.
1. Bioplastics and Biodegradable Plastics
The worst thing about petroleum-based plastic products and packaging is that it can take thousands of years to degrade in a landfill, all the while leaching toxic chemicals into the soil and water table. Biodegradable plastics are designed to break down much faster, and, assuming they’re made from friendlier ingredients, do so without poisoning the planet. Biodegradable plastics are susceptible to degradation by microorganisms, which is different from other forms of degradation, such as photo-degradation (from exposure to sunlight) and oxo-degradation (from exposure to high temperature and humidity).
Bioplastic, often confused for biodegradable plastic, is slightly different. Bio-based plastics are made wholly from renewable resources, such as cellulose, vegetable oils, sugar or starch. Wood, corn, potato, wheat, tapioca, and rice are some of the sources of resin for bio-based plastics. Bio-based plastics are not automatically bio-degradable, but can be so designed. This lower-impact material has been embraced by Coke and other beverage brands.
2. Mushroom Packaging
A New York company called Ecovative Design is responsible for re-introducing America to the magic of mushrooms–but not the hallucination-inducing kind. The company “grows” its Mushroom Packaging (pictured, top) using mycelium, a fungal network of threadlike cells. This mycelium grows around agricultural by-products like buckwheat husks, oat hulls, or cotton burrs. In 5 – 7 days, in the dark, with no watering, and no petrochemical inputs, the mycelium envelops the by-products, binding them into a strong and beautiful packaging material. This unique, compostable packaging material is already being used by Dell, Steelcase, and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
3. Reuseable Packaging
It’s no accident that ‘reduce’ and ‘reuse’ come before ‘recycle’ in the list of eco-friendly actions. The most eco-friendly form of packaging is that which never exists in the first place. Puma demonstrated a brilliant application of this concept with its “Clever Little Bag”. The redesigned shoe box has no tissue paper, zero laminated printing, takes up less space than a traditional shoe box, and weighs significantly less when shipping. It’s house in a non-woven satchel that provides a handle for carrying the box home, and can then be reused indefinitely. A friend of mine actually uses hers to carry her mat shoes to kickboxing class, but it could just as easily double as a shopping bag or wine carrier.