Technology

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Waste Away: Eco answers to the throwaway crisis

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Our first problem; The Earth’s population will reach almost 10 billion by 2050 and, if that prediction proves true, it means that we’ll need to double the amount of crops grown in order to feed the mouths of the many. 

Astonishingly, we are throwing away almost 50% of total food weight produced each year – the West (ashamedly) the most superficial offenders – because of unrealistic aesthetic standards and overzealous “use by” information. 

And here’s where our second problem arises; Our food doesn’t arrive on our plate direct from the field. It is packaged in plastic, which is thrown away alongside any unwanted produce.

But, as Marine Biologist Dr Sylvia Earle points out “there is no “away” for it to go.”  – A Plastic Ocean

The post-WWII answer to ensuring food security has become a grotesque and gigantic environmental albatross. And, whilst our forgotten food rots and expels a growing cloud of greenhouse gases, we’re drowning in a literal sea of plastic which isn’t going anywhere. 

So it falls to a few to try and come up with a sustainable answer which appeals to the masses.

Waste turns warrior 

NY based Ecovative are addressing the packaging problem by growing their own. A natural “alloy” of fungi-based material – mycelium – which sprouts in the roots of the humble mushroom. 

This organic matter can be manufactured and combined with other natural substances, such as hardwoods, then moulded into form. What exactly that form takes can be almost as broad as the human imagination, but what began as packing materials has since been incarnated in furniture and now even building construction.

Their bio-plastics seek to replace traditional, non-biodegradable, substances with a natural alternative, which leaves no permanent trace behind. What’s more, the mycelium is grown in decaying plant-life – specifically, acquired agricultural waste – turning otherwise lost produce into an effective incubator for a new product.

There’s even a “grow your own” scheme, if you fancy a new coffee table?

Recognising the promise, and under increasing pressure from a more environmentally conscious consumer, it’s rumoured that Ecovative have secured investments of more than $20 million since their 2007 launch – establishing commercial kudos and providing a glimpse of what the future of packaging design, and beyond, might look like.

Others are trailing a host of different organic composites, including Biocopac Plus who are investigating alternatives to BPA – that insidious menace within our consumables. Here, tomato skins have replaced plastics to form the inner lining of cans – creating a safe and fully recyclable food storage solution. 

Potato and whey protein packaging development, supported by the EU, and even Shrilk  – an extraction of polysaccharide from lobster and shrimp shells – are challenging conceptions about what happens to the bits nobody wants. 

It’s these kinds of dabblings by the tech world that are posing questions about what actually is waste, and what can be repositioned and put to use again.

Sustainable saturation

UK eco-tech start up Skipping Rocks Lab have looked to nature's already perfect droplet, in their approach to taking on perhaps the biggest perpetrator of damage to our ecosystem – plastic water bottles. And it's an idea which is beginning to float. 

Ooho! – currently rolling out via pop-ups within the UK – utilises algae as a basis for a membrane in which to hold liquids.

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The brand has developed machinery which allows the user to envelop most kinds of liquid within a double-layered, clear, membrane – which is tasteless, odourless, and can either be swallowed or discarded after use. The material can be coloured or flavoured, according to the wants of the the user – juice bars, for example – and will dissolve away safely and completely. 

It’s reported that the product will be running trials with event organisers such as Virgin Sports and Live Nation 2018, and their CrowdCube fundraising total sits at over £800,000 – almost double the original aim.

Last year, in the UK alone, approximately 2,616 million litres of plastic bottled water were consumed. If you imagine that most of these will then end up in landfill (which they will), getting rid of these alone packs one heck of an environmental punch. 

Naturally naked – laser-branding

You can usually rely on the Nordic countries to push ahead with a certain fearlessness, when it comes greener living, and Sweden has taken the packaging argument to its natural conclusion. Doing away with it altogether. 

One of Europe’s leading producers of fresh fruits and vegetables – Nature & More – in collaboration with Swedish supermarket chain ICA, have pledged to completely remove packaging from their organic offer, in favour of using a new laser-branding technique for identification.

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This technique – which has been approved by EU Organic certifier SKAL – uses industrial laser technology to remove pigment from the skins of fresh produce. The waste-less labelling has no negative impact on taste or longevity and it’s estimated that, on ICAs avocados alone, 135 miles – or 2,042kg – of plastic foil will be saved each year. In terms of ecological footprint, that’s the equivalent of one average car driving around the world almost one and a half times. Even doing away with the tiny apple sticker has massive environmental ramifications. 

With M&S adopting the technique for branding coconuts, it’s hopefully only a matter of time before package-less goes mainstream.

Intelligent labelling

But let’s not forget that, regardless of how eco the wrapper or container, we’re still throwing away tonnes of food – on account of perfectionism. 

We, in the West particularly, have something of an obsession with “use by” dates, and this is hugely exacerbating the issue of food wastage. We’ve all been guilty of glancing at a label and, without so much as a cursory nose-inside-a-packet, throwing food in the bin.

Solveiga Pakštaitė has designed a solution to that problem. The Bump Mark Label

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A layered tab which sits on the corner of the – preferably biodegradable – packet, the design places gelatine over a bumped panel. Since gelatine is organic it degrades at the same rate as the food inside the packet so, when the product inside spoils, the bump is revealed to the touch.

Originally designed with the needs of blind consumers in mind, this simple to interpret label could spell the end of billions of pounds of food waste. It’s demonstrable that when things are made easy for us, we respond appropriately.

There hasn’t been a lack of insight into sustainable packaging over the years, it’s just that there has been a certain amount of stubbornness about change. As Skipping Rocks Lab founder – Rodrigo Garcia Gonzalez puts it; “there are people who are making quite a lot of money from the status quo”.

A Bag for Life, whilst a great idea, simply won’t cut it as a solution to the plastics crisis anymore. Tech must step in and large corporations must listen to the demands of green consumers if we’re going to start to clear the debris and let a bit of air in again.

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