All-you-can-eat food con­tain­ers could soon be on the menu

Milk pro­tein, seaweed ex­plored as fu­ture build­ing blocks for pack­ag­ing to cut down on sin­gle-use plas­tics

The Hamilton Spectator - - Food - SYL­VAIN CHARLEBOIS Syl­vain Charlebois is a pro­fes­sor in Food Dis­tri­bu­tion and Pol­icy at Dal­housie Univer­sity. This ar­ti­cle was orig­i­nally pub­lished on The Con­ver­sa­tion, an in­de­pen­dent and non­profit source of news, anal­y­sis and com­men­tary from aca­demic ex

Within a year, sin­gle-use plas­tics and ex­cess pack­ag­ing have be­come Pub­lic Enemy No. 1.

A re­cent Green­peace-led au­dit looked at the com­pa­nies be­hind the waste lin­ing Cana­dian wa­ter­ways. Much of the plas­tic trash cleaned up from Cana­dian shore­lines this fall was trace­able to five com­pa­nies: Nestlé, Tim Hor­tons, Pep­siCo, the Coca-Cola Com­pany and McDon­ald’s. All these com­pa­nies are part of the food in­dus­try, which is hardly sur­pris­ing.

With con­sumers look­ing for con­ve­nience and por­ta­ble food so­lu­tions, this prob­lem will not go away any time soon. In fact, it could get worse if noth­ing is done.

The num­ber of meals in Canada con­sumed out­side the home is ris­ing. Cana­dian house­holds spend roughly 35 per cent of their food bud­get out­side a gro­cery store, and that per­cent­age is in­creas­ing ev­ery year. The food ser­vice, re­tail and pro­cess­ing sec­tors are all fully aware of this en­vi­ron­men­tal co­nun­drum.

What is un­clear for com­pa­nies is how to deal with it. But mak­ing the is­sue of plas­tic use a po­lit­i­cal one is cre­at­ing some move­ment, ev­ery­where around the world.

Com­postable con­tain­ers

In the food in­dus­try, con­ver­sa­tions about green sup­ply chains fo­cus on com­postable and even edi­ble so­lu­tions. Plenty of tech­nolo­gies ex­ist.

On the com­postable front, we have come a long way in just a few years. In 2010, Pep­siCo Canada came out with the first com­postable chip bag for SunChips. This new pack­age was meant to com­pletely break down into com­post in a hot, ac­tive com­post pile in ap­prox­i­mately 14 weeks. Some tests con­cluded that it did not.

But what re­ally at­tracted the at­ten­tion of con­sumers to this nov­elty was how noisy the bag was. An in­flu­en­tial so­cial me­dia cam­paign led to the bag’s down­fall. The com­pany pulled it from the mar­ket less than a year af­ter its in­tro­duc­tion.

Since then, pres­sure from cities has helped boost the pres­ence of com­postable pack­ag­ing. With cities in­creas­ingly ac­cept­ing food pack­ag­ing in or­gan­ics bins, re­tail­ers shouldn’t shy away from pro­mot­ing these green so­lu­tions. They might even adopt new green pack­ag­ing schemes for some of their pri­vate-la­belled prod­ucts.

Milk wrap

Edi­ble pack­ag­ing is also gain­ing cur­rency world­wide. Imag­ine one day walk­ing into a gro­cery store, and ev­ery­thing you see on store shelves can be eaten.

Re­search has come a long way, but it has not been easy. The first gen­er­a­tion of edi­ble pack­ag­ing was made of starch, which of­ten failed to keep food fresh.

The United States Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture (USDA) has been work­ing on a new gen­er­a­tion of edi­ble pack­ag­ing that may get the at­ten­tion of food in­dus­try pun­dits. Ca­sein-based food pack­ag­ing, made from milk pro­teins, isn’t just edi­ble, it’s also more ef­fi­cient than other types of pack­ag­ing as it keeps oxy­gen away from the food for an ex­tended pe­riod, keep­ing it fresher for longer. The ca­sein-based edi­ble fab­ric can be in­fused with vi­ta­mins and pro­bi­otics. This tech­nol­ogy from the USDA should be ready in 2019.

An­other or­ganic mat­ter get­ting at­ten­tion is seaweed. We have wrapped sushi with seaweed for cen­turies, so it is only nat­u­ral to ex­tend the prac­tice be­yond Ja­panese del­i­ca­cies. Costs and avail­abil­ity are still un­clear.

Eat­ing your garbage away

While these may be promis­ing tech­nolo­gies, no busi­ness model has yet been de­vel­oped and we still don’t know how edi­ble pack­ag­ing will af­fect re­tail prices. This is cer­tainly of great con­cern to re­tail­ers and restau­rants.

Other is­sues have come up as well when con­sid­er­ing edi­ble pack­ag­ing. Taste and food safety are ob­vi­ous ones.

The idea that we can re­duce plas­tic waste by eat­ing more pack­ag­ing is in­trigu­ing, but not ev­ery con­sumer would think of such a con­cept as ap­pe­tiz­ing. A case has to be made for con­sumers to eat their garbage away.

Lo­gis­tics are cer­tainly an is­sue with edi­ble pack­ag­ing. Through­out the sup­ply chain, tem­per­a­tures tend to vary greatly, which makes it chal­leng­ing for any edi­ble pack­ag­ing to pre­serve the in­tegrity of prod­ucts that may travel thou­sands of kilo­me­tres around the world.

Star­tups look­ing at this is­sue are ram­pant. Ac­cord­ing to Trans­parency Mar­ket Re­search, a global re­search firm, de­mand for edi­ble pack­ag­ing could in­crease on av­er­age by 6.9 per cent yearly un­til 2024 and could be­come a mar­ket worth al­most US$2 bil­lion world­wide. As con­sumers, we will be given an op­por­tu­nity to save the planet from plas­tic waste as we eat our food.

In the mean time, Green­peace can con­tinue to blame com­pa­nies for the rub­bish we find in oceans and wa­ter­ways, but it’s ac­tu­ally all of us who are re­spon­si­ble for this mess. If we want more com­postable or edi­ble pack­ages, we may be asked to pay more for our food, to pay for a “planet premium,” once these new tech­nolo­gies come around. Re­gard­less, it may be worth it.

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