Could These Materials be the Future of Packaging?
April 26, 2019
One significant way to make packaging more sustainable is to start with the materials we use. A revolution in alternative materials is underway as consumers demand more sustainable options and brands invest in research and development around environmentally friendly materials. All this change creates exciting new opportunities for brands to package their products in alternatives to traditional tree-based paper and petroleum-based plastics.
The following alternative materials are sourced made of everything from algae and mushrooms to potatoes and leftover clothing waste, all with the potential to shift packaging to a more sustainable future.
Recycled Cotton Insulation
Clothing waste in the United States is out of hand. In fact, textile waste makes up nearly 8% of all the solid waste we send to landfills. As designers tap into recycled materials for packaging, cotton waste presents a fantastic alternative to EPS (styrofoam) and other cushioned insulations. Recycled cotton insulation performs comparably to styrofoam as an insulating material.
Cotton insulation often requires a plastic shell to protect it agains leaks and condensation. This plastic shell presents challenges at the end of the product’s life cycle, as it has to be removed and recycled separately.
Several U.S. manufacturers provide recycled cotton as sheets and bags.
Poly mailers are one of the toughest challenges for ecommerce packaging. They're lightweight and keep products safe in transit, but recycling is a challenge for consumers and recycling facilities. Several manufacturers are developing compostable poly bags using a blend of corn starch and PLA.
The shelf life of the cornstarch-based film is approximately nine months, and must be stored in a dark, dry place. The bags also use PBAT, a fossil fuel derivative, as a binding agent for more flexibility. Although derived from fossil fuels, PBAT is still compostable.
Cornstarch-based poly mailers are not widely available in the U.S. yet, but we expect to see them become more prevalent in the next few years.
Bagasse is the dry, fibrous material left over after the production of sugarcane. Think of it as the original housing of all that sugar we eat. The bagasse fibers are mixed in a slurry of hot water and formed in the same way as the traditional molded pulp that makes up egg cartons. Bagasse is curbside recyclable, compostable, and we particularly love that it taps into an existing agricultural waste stream so it requires no new, raw materials. Bagasse, as with other alternatives to tree-based papers, requires less chemical processing than tree-based pulp since no bleach is used to process out lignin from tree fibers.
Molded pulp doesn’t typically score well on lifecycle analyses (LCAs) for a few reasons. For one, it’s heavier than thin plastic trays, leading to a higher footprint in transport. Also, it takes quite a bit of energy to heat the large ovens that cook the molded pulp. However, research on bagasse specifically shows that pulp packaging is the most environmentally friendly use of bagasse from a carbon footprint perspective, because if not used for packaging, the material would most likely be burned as a source of fuel.
Brazil and India are the world’s two biggest producers of sugarcane, and this international supply chain may lead to a high carbon footprint in transit for domestic brands.
Bagasse is readily available in the U.S. and abroad as molded pulp for food containers or as inserts to package consumer goods.
Behold, the humble potato. The PaperFoam company invented their namesake material — it's a unique, natural, lightweight foam derived from potato starch. It straddles an interesting aesthetic boundary between the processed and the natural, as it has a clean matte finish, yet it breaks down and composts easily. The material is produced from potato starch mixed with cellulose fiber, water, and a proprietary premix. It can be injection molded, giving designers the freedom to make any number of custom forms and inserts.
From an environmental perspective, PaperFoam is fantastic. There is a low carbon footprint in the manufacturing process, less water is used during production when compared to molded fiber, and the final result is incredibly lightweight.
We love that this material is recyclable in the standard paper stream, so it can be thrown in with your everyday paper recycling. It’s also compostable even at low-temperature home compost settings.
Because the material is so novel and unique, customers may not intuitively know that it can be recycled with paper. It’s up to brands to communicate that messaging around end-of-life disposal in order to fully take advantage of these incredible material properties.
PaperFoam has limited availability in the U.S.
PLA (Polylactic Acid) is a bioplastic derived from plant starch, often corn, but also sugarcane, cassava, or beets. Unlike plastics derived from petroleum, PLA is compostable in the high temperatures of industrial composting facilities. PLA can be molded into structural forms, blown into films, or used as a barrier coating. With plastic piling up in our landfills and waterways, PLA is a great alternative to non-compostable plastics. We particularly love PLA as an option for food containers, as PLA containers can be composted along with food waste.
The main design challenge with PLA is that it looks and feels like traditional plastic, so people often recycle it instead of disposing composting it. As PLA mixes with traditional plastic in the recycling process, it contaminates the stream. PLA doesn’t break down in marine environments, so although technically compostable, PLA that makes its way into our waterways will not decompose.
Finally, there are concerns that the amount of land necessary to grow the corn and other biomass to create PLA takes away from land that should be used to grow food. This is a valid criticism, and the industry is looking into PLA production from agricultural waste such as bagasse and wood chips instead of food crops.
There are several manufacturers creating PLA packaging in the U.S. with a focus on food packaging.
Mushroom-based packaging just might be the replacement for EPS (styrofoam) we’ve been searching for. To make mycelium foam, the vegetative roots of mushrooms are grown as a natural glue around agricultural waste, usually from hemp, kenaf, or flax. The result is a completely bio-based, home-compostable packaging material with an awesome, earthy texture to it. It’s a delightfully weird packaging option and we particularly love it.
Mycelium performs well in drop and compressions tests, making it a good option for packaging fragile and high-end consumer goods. It has proven to be commercially viable, in fact, Dell has been packaging its servers with mycelium since 2011. Seed uses mycelium as a protective barrier to ship their glass jars to customers.
Manufacturing mycelium is a labor and time intensive process. It takes over a week from when the mycelium is activated to when the final form can be cooked and finished. This time constraint embedded into the manufacturing process presents a challenge for mycelium to work as packaging for low-cost items.
There hasn’t been a peer-reviewed LCA comparing the manufacturing process of mycelium to that of EPS (styrofoam). It’s possible that EPS has a lower carbon footprint than mycelium, but that might be an unfair comparison since the carbon footprint of mycelium will certainly go down with further research and economies of scale.
Mycelium packaging was pioneered by Ecovative in upstate New York, and is commercially available. The number of manufacturing locations is currently limited, so it is important to consider the carbon footprint associated with freight from factory to warehouse.
We never really think about where our ink comes from, but traditional printing ink is quietly one of the most toxic parts of the packaging process. Between solvents full of VOCs, petroleum-based binders, and pigments laden with heavy metals, sourcing alternative inks that are environmentally friendly can be an almost impossible process. Strides have been made with soy-based and vegetable-based inks, using non-petroleum products as binders, but these have been an imperfect start.
Algae may hold the answers for our ink woes. New algae inks represent the first instance of the pigments, not just the binders, being derived from renewable materials. Living Ink is one of the companies leading research and development efforts into commercializing algae ink in an array of different colors.
Ink isn't typically top of mind when it comes to sustainability. In order for brands to invest in this new, more environmentally friendly process, both brand owners and customers alike need to learn and understand why better inks are important and worthwhile.
While algae ink is still under development, certain colors are commercially available through select manufacturers.
Polyvinyl Alcohol (PVOH)
You’ve probably come across polyvinyl alcohol as the film around laundry pods – those convenient detergent packs that you can throw in the washer with a satisfying plop. While it may look like a weird alien membrane, it’s actually a fantastic, biodegradable plastic alternative. Although the material is derived from fossil fuels, we’ve chosen to include it because of its low toxicity and how readily it can decompose. Even in cool water the material dissolves in under one minute.
Polyvinyl alcohol isn’t anything wildly new and unusual. Often the material is used as a strengthening agent for recycled fibers in cardboard. However, recent consumer demand for single-use plastic alternatives has thrust polyvinyl alcohol into the spotlight.
Unfortunately this material often requires secondary packaging, as it needs some protection from the elements to remain shelf stable, so often it doesn’t eliminate the need for plastic or other packaging entirely. Furthermore, PVOH is made from non-renewable resources.
Cornstarch foam caught the eye of the U.S. Navy as they looked for an alternative to styrofoam (expanded polystyrene or EPS) that they could safely dispose in the ocean. After extensive testing they found cornstarch foam was the perfect solution, because they could just mix the foam in a big pulper, let it break apart, and release it into the ocean with no detrimental effects to the marine environment.
Cornstarch foam is a bio-based alternative to styrofoam. It performs comparably to EPS both in drop tests and as thermal insulation. Unlike most foams, cornstarch foam is compostable, and it doesn’t need the high heat of an industrial composter to break down, so even if the material somehow made its way to the ocean, it would still decompose.
The easy degradation of cornstarch foam is both a blessing and a curse. The material does not hold up well in water, so in cases where packaging might come in contact with moisture, the foam needs a plastic liner. This plastic liner can be difficult to recycle and adds an unwanted level of complexity to the end-of-life disposal process.
Starch-based foam is commercially available as packing peanuts from a number of suppliers. It can also be shaped and die cut into panels.
Now that the 2018 U.S. Farm Bill allows hemp to be grown in all 50 states, we’re finally starting to see opportunities for hemp to be used as a bioplastic. Hemp requires less water than crops like corn or cotton, and the growth cycle is short. Both of these factors make hemp bioplastics a promising alternative to corn or other vegetable-based bioplastics.
End-of-life presents a difficult challenge for hemp plastic because it most likely will not be accepted for curbside recycling in a municipal stream. Encouraging customer reuse within the packaging design is probably the best approach when considering end-of-life for hemp plastics.
Hemp plastics are available as a raw material or from brands making custom products for specific industries.
Original article: https://www.lumi.com/blog/sustainable-alternative-packaging-materials