29 May 2018 --- Rising demand for more environmentally-responsible consumer products is driving innovation in biodegradable and compostable packaging solutions. Public concern for the environmental impact of everyday packaging materials – particularly plastics – has intensified, creating market opportunities for creative, forward-thinking and sometimes entirely unusual biodegradable/compostable packaging.
Roza Janusz, a graduate of the School of Form in Poznan, Poland, has reimagined packaging with SCOBY: an organic and sustainable material which can be eaten or composted after use. It is made of bacteria and yeast and grown through a fermentation process.
“Maybe packaging production will no longer litter the environment, but enrich it?” Janusz speculates while speaking to NutritionInsight.
“I was researching growing materials and studying biofabrication processes during my graduation year,” she says. “It was all very experimental. I looked at the work of farmers and tried to combine this with my industrial design background.”
“I realized that farming is already mass-produced and that maybe packaging materials could be produced in the same way. I began growing SCOBY around farmers and we both realized that it is the perfect symbiosis: growing plants and growing SCOBY supplemented each other – I used the farmer’s waste and my material waste was used by the farmer.”
“SCOBY is a bacterial cellulose made from bacteria and yeast tissue. Similar bacteria are found in kombucha or Nata de Coco desserts. The farmer cultivates SCOBY by adding fluid from agriculture waste. The material grows in two weeks in shallow liquid containers. It doesn't need sunlight to grow meaning it can be staged vertically. Similar to many plants, it grows at a temperature of 25-35 degrees,” she says.
Janusz believes that the material is ideal for packaging farm produce like herbs, seeds or even instant dishes, serving to highlight the connection of the farmer to biofabrication. She claims that it is not only a sustainable alternative to plastics but also speculates that the “acidic PH environment and high oxygen protection inside the membrane can extend shelf life.”
“SCOBY and its by-product liquid are compostable and both are nutritious to our gut and to soil because of the healthy bacteria,” Janusz notes. “Packaging material and by-product liquid both have to be used to maintain the circular, sustainable process. It's not difficult since SCOBY liquid has many properties and can be used in a variety of products like soil PH stabilizer, natural home detergent, as an ingredient for cosmetics or in probiotic drinks.”
Thus far, there has been no commercial interest in SCOBY, but this is of no concern to Janusz who chooses to see the bigger picture: “If not commercially used, I hope SCOBY will not stay as an experimental project but trigger the idea of growing packaging material in the not too distant future.”
“I don't want to make SCOBY an exclusive idea only used by one company. I believe it can be beneficial not only for the environment but also for agricultural businesses,” she adds.
While the commercialization – or mainstreaming – of innovative biodegradable/compostable packaging may be a challenge in itself, the popularity of this packaging type is on the rise. Innova Market Insights reports a 40 percent increase in new food and beverage products packaged in bio-based/biodegradable material (CAGR 2013-2017). Meanwhile, a survey found that more than 35 percent of German consumers, 25 percent of UK consumers and more than 25 percent of US consumers consider bio-based and/or biodegradable/compostable packaging important in food and beverage choice (Innova Market Insights, 2015).
Biodegradable and compostable packaging is similar but not the same. Biodegradable materials – such as corrugated cardboard and bioplastics – have the ability to break down and decompose into natural elements typically within a year. Compostable materials – such as starch-based packing peanuts – break down but also provide the earth with nutrients.
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An example of a biodegradable packaging material gaining market share is hemp packaging. US-based hemp manufacturer, Sana Packaging, makes 100 percent plant-based and chemical-free bioplastic packaging for the cannabis industry.
“Most hemp bioplastics on the market today, including ours, are fiber-reinforced biocomposites,” James Eichner, Co-Founder at Sana Packaging, tells NutritionInsight. “These are composite materials made from a polymer matrix reinforced with natural fibers – in our case, hemp fibers. To make a hemp biocomposite, microtized hemp hurd is infused with an existing bioplastic. Our plastic formulation is 30 percent hemp and 70 percent corn PLA.”
“The largest benefit of hemp packaging, whether its hemp paperboard or hemp plastic, is that it is regenerative packaging, meaning that it is made from a regenerative material. Looking first at hemp as a feedstock for paper, one acre of hemp produces as much pulp as four acres of trees. In terms of hemp as a feedstock for bioplastics: growing one acre of hemp requires roughly a third of the water required to grow one acre of corn and none of the pesticides.”Click to Enlarge
“Hemp also presents a superior carbon sequestration potential as one metric ton of hemp sequesters 1.5 metric tons of carbon – that’s about four times more carbon than corn sequesters throughout its production cycle. Furthermore, hemp does all this while remediating the soil so it’s an ideal rotational crop,” he adds.
Sana Packaging’s first two commercial products are the Sana Container and the Sana Tube. The Sana Container is a versatile child-resistant box with optimal space for branding and compliance labeling and a nesting design that allows for efficient shipping and storage. The Sana Container is ideal for flowers, concentrates, vaporizer cartridges and edibles.
The Sana Tube is a versatile child-resistant tube that is ideal for pre-rolls (joints/cigarettes), vaporizer cartridges and vaporizer pens.
“Hemp packaging is far from mainstream but it is already in commercial use. Hemp Press, a company based in Oregon, specializes in hemp paper/paperboard packaging. As for hemp plastic packaging, Sana Packaging will be the first company to commercialize that as far as I know. While our current focus is on the cannabis industry, we plan to expand to other packaging verticals in the future,” says Eichner.
The challenge of commercializing bioplastics is somewhat hindered in that standard plastics remain significantly cheaper. However, with consumer demand for environmentally-friendly packaging on the rise, there is increasing economic incentive to explore biodegradable/compostable alternatives.
German start-up company, Bio-lutions, are demonstrating in Bangalore, India, that environmental issues can be transformed into economic opportunities in the form of a localized and sustainable circular economy if the entire supply chain is incentivized. Bio-lutions are working with local farmers, buying and converting discarded agricultural waste into biodegradable packaging. The model helps to tackle India’s huge air pollution and plastic pollution issues.
Innovations such as Rosa Janusz’s farmable SCOBY material, Sana Packaging’s hemp products and Bio-lutions residue-based packaging help us to re-evaluate the relationship between packaging and the environment and advance the debate around sustainability. Mainstream commercialization remains a challenge, but inventors are demonstrating the varied possibilities of biodegradable/compostable packaging solutions at a time when the eco-conscious consumer is willing to listen.
By Joshua Poole
This feature is provided by NutritionInsight's sister website, PackagingInsights.
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