Packaging that’s good enough to eat
By Wouter Smits on 24-05-2020
In the Netherlands, packaging material that you can eat is still a rare sight on supermarket shelves. Why is that? And what opportunities does edible packaging offer? A brewery in the United States developed an alternative for the rings that hold cans in a six-pack together: packaging made of wheat and barley that you can eat!
A brewery in the United States developed an alternative for the rings that hold cans in a six-pack together: packaging made of wheat and barley that you can eat! Elsewhere in the US, researchers looked into the potential of using the milk protein casein as packaging. In the UK, others developed a membrane made of plants and seaweed to package water. There are also American developments using an edible membrane to wrap food. The Russians are making edible packaging material from vegetable and fruit purees. Another edible option are Indonesian sachets containing herbs and coffee that dissolve in liquid together with their contents. A Brazilian fast-food chain has introduced an edible wrapper around its hamburgers. Straws and cups that are suitable for human consumption? These exist too.
The Dutch market
Edible packaging material is not necessarily all that new. On the domestic market, edible rice paper has been in use for many years. Primus Wafer Paper uses it to make edible containers and sandwich holders. “We use our starch paper, which is what rice paper really is, to make edible muffin cases, for example, which were welcomed with enthusiasm by the ice cream industry last summer. In addition to final products, we mainly supply paper to partners who process it themselves. One example is an Australian manufacturer who wants to make edible gift wrapping that can be used to wrap bones for dogs, for example”, says Wouter Smits, Primus’ commercial director.
There is also edible packaging made of wheat bran. Polish company Biotrem makes plates and bowls from this material. Dennis Out sells them through his company BIOdisposables, that supplies mainly to the hospitality industry. “I have eaten the plates and I have to admit that they don’t taste great, a bit like dry rye bread”, he says.
The benefits of edible
Dennis Out points out that taste is not the most important factor – it’s more important that the articles are biodegradable. “After you finished eating, you can just throw the plates into the garden. In that way, using these plates help us work towards a world with less plastic. Edible packaging can be used as a marketing instrument or as a gimmick. I have no idea whether an edible hamburger wrapping tastes good, but it’s a nice idea that a bird could eat it if it was thrown away in the street,” says Out. The fact that edible packaging does not create more litter is one of the key advantages, believes Niels van Marle from the Kennisinstituut Duurzaam Verpakken (Knowledge Institute for Sustainable Packaging). “Sometimes the fact that it’s edible has an obvious added value, as is the case for the herb packaging in noodle soup, which removes the need to tear open plastic sachets which you then throw away. Another initiative that benefits the environment is the ice cream manufacturer who makes ice lollies with liquorice sticks. They enhance the product and put an end to consumers throwing away ice cream sticks in the countryside.”
Despite all this, packaging made of algae, wheat bran and proteins are still not seen on a large scale in supermarkets. Presumably, there are obstacles at play. Van Marle wonders how much energy and how many raw materials are needed to manufacture edible packaging compared to more traditional options. “Furthermore, edible packaging that isn’t eaten cannot be recycled (yet). I also have questions about hygiene. I’m not sure that I want to eat the wrapper of my hamburger. What’s more, we shouldn’t forget that packaging serves a number of functions, such as communicating information. Text on edible materials could be an obstacle to eating it.”
Wouter Smits believes that a large-scale switch to edible packaging requires too big a change in consumer behaviour. “I don’t expect to suddenly see edible muesli packaging in supermarkets in the next ten years. I do see options on a smaller scale. It would be easy to use edible paper for the wrapper that prevents a children’s ice cream from dripping, for example. The edible packaging really needs to have an added value in marketplaces, where the focus lies on lowering the cost price.”
Dennis Out has high expectations of edible packaging. More and more customers ask him for the best solution in disposables with the lowest impact on the environment. “It’s not that easy, because it depends on a large number of different factors and you see that in other industries too. It would be great to get rid of plastic packaging on fruit and vegetables, but will it still be such a great idea if it shortens their shelf life and means that we end up throwing out more food? Despite this type of drawback, I think there will be an increase in the number of edible alternatives, particularly now that the EU has long-term plans to prohibit plastic packaging.”