It’s no secret that we are facing a huge challenge when it comes to trying to reign in people’s consumption of single use plastic products, but as a vendor it can be hard to keep up with all the alternative packaging products that are now on the market. In order to meet demands from consumers and retailers, companies — large and small — are trying to find cost-effective ways to transition from a reliance on plastic packaging to alternatives sourced from plant materials.
Edible seaweed pods that hold drinking water, banana leaves wrapped about perishable food, 3D-printing with corn starch, and diapers made from eucalyptus wood are just a few creative examples of new materials companies are working with to package their products with an environmentally approach. While this transition away from single use-plastics and other plastic packaging is a positive one, it’s important to note that in many cases the "plant-based" products are really a form of bioplastic. They have been created when the carbon in the carbon-containing compounds is sourced from plants rather than oil or gas (from corn to sugar to rice to vegetable oils), so there continues to be room to grow.
And the industry is indeed growing! Here are some new products that have emerged on the market in 2019:
Easy to grow and readily available, using algae as a base for plastics makes a lot of sense. In fact, a few entrepreneurs have created an algae-based biomaterial that can be used in 3D printing. That breakthrough could have major implications for the way consumer goods are bought, sold and packaged. Another benefit of algae is that it isn’t competing for agricultural land the way other plant-based products are. It can be made into bioplastics that are flexible and durable, in theory more resistant to microwave radiation, and almost always fully biodegradable in natural environments.
With a massive commodity use, turning corn into bioplastic materials is proving to be extremely popular in the United States. As noted, corn starch can be also be used in 3D printing as well as to make a transparent, biodegradable thermoplastic polyester.
• FOOD AND AGRICULTURAL WASTE
These materials are becoming sought after options as feedstocks for bioplastics because their production doesn’t compete with food production, they can cut emissions from waste, and fosters a more circular economy. Examples of products involving crops and foodstuffs come from all over the world and range from avocado seeds to extra barley from beer brewing to mushrooms in molds.
All starchy products — wheatgrass, elephant grass, and flax, can be a base that is used as a source for various plant-based applications including packaging, kitchen products and more.
And these are just a few new products being explored. Start-ups around the world are also utilizing and exploring additional uses for hemp, potatoes, soy, sugar, wood and more in packaging and other product solutions to help us move away from plastic products.
While most of these products have a lower carbon footprint than conventional plastics on paper, the debate is ongoing about whether sourcing from some of these crops diverts productive food as well as concern that not all bioplastics are biodegradable or compostable. As additional products are explored, hopefully these issues will be continue to be addressed and improvements made.