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Challenges and Innovations in Safer Materials for Food Packaging

Contributor II
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Has the growing awareness of the reality and impacts of disposable plastic pollution finally started to change the marketplace? It seems that many factors are coming together to shift food packaging options away from plastic lately. Maybe this scenario rings true to you too:

A year or so ago, my favorite fast casual restaurant chain for lunchtime salads switched from plastic to fiber-based bowls and changed their plastic utensils to PLA compostable plastic. Not too long before, the American Chemical Society’s LEED Platinum certified office building where I work added compost bins on each floor, contracting with a composting company that is making significant inroads to offices all over Washington, DC.

In Maryland, where I live, the state recently passed a ban on polystyrene food containers, cups, egg cartons, vegetable trays and other items.

Even plastic straws seem to be disappearing from many establishments.

All of this seems like a positive step forward…but as members of the green and sustainable chemistry community, we have to remember to consider that all materials have their pros and cons and often a look at the whole picture reveals a more nuanced reality.

A deeper look into packaging alternatives is needed, and Safer Made’s recent report, Safer Materials in Food Packaging, presents a number of issues and design challenges. The report also highlights innovators in each area.

What Keeps that Salad Bowl from Seeping?

Getting away from plastic bowls and plates has generally meant moving to paper—or molded fiber. Molded fiber is biobased and can incorporate recycled paper and fiber products, providing an additional layer of sustainability. However, molded fiber alone does not provide an effective barrier to liquid, grease or air. To improve its properties, chemical additives or coatings are used, and many of these—as listed in Safer Made’s report—are chemicals of concern.

Making a big appearance on this list are all sorts of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Chemicals in this class persist in the environment and can accumulate in our bodies. The U.S. EPA cites evidence that exposure to PFAS can lead to adverse health outcomes in humans including reproductive and developmental issues. If these chemicals of concern are in packaging that ends up in a compost pile, they can also pose a risk at contaminating compost that may go back into the food production cycle.

Replacing Functions, Rather than Products

After many years of being burnt by substituting problematic chemicals with close relatives only to find they were not much better in the end, the focus is now shifting to looking for functional innovation. Instead of the focus being on replacing certain chemicals, a functional approach allows innovators to approach a problem with a wider perspective. For example, if an additive chemical is causing concern, it may be that a different starting material, design or technology, would negate the need for such an additive. To this end, the Safer Made report identifies three functional challenges at play in food packaging and three corresponding solution areas.


Based on this approach, Safer Made further defined three broad innovation needs within food packaging: Alternatives to Petroleum-Based Plastics, Improved End-of-Life Functions, and Safer Functional Additives.


Innovation in Fiber Food Packaging

Safer Made’s report gives many examples of companies working on food packaging innovations. I have highlighted a few examples that relate to safer and greener fiber-based packaging below—divided into design innovation and additives innovation.

Improving the design, material and manufacture of fiber

California company Ecologic is producing fiber-based containers in the standard shapes of home care, food and beverage bottles. Their design uses recycled cardboard and newspaper mixed with polymeric binding agents and molded into a bottle shell. Inside the shell is a separate, thin PE liner. At the end of use, the two pieces can be easily separated. The shell can be recycled or composted, while the liner can be recycled with plastic bags in most places. Compared to similar plastic bottles, this design uses up to 60-70% less plastic, and can be shipped to customers flat, which improves the shipping carbon footprint.

Melodea, an Israeli start up backed by Swedish and Brazilian pulp paper companies, is taking an entirely different approach. They are using cellulose from the paper industry’s waste pulp sludge to produce Cellulose Nano Crystals—materials that give structure to the cell walls of plants. One of the applications for this tough material is to strengthen biobased packaging. Melodea also wants to use this material to replace aluminum as a gas barrier coating in multi-laminate packaging (e.g., Tetra-Pak). This could improve the material’s ability to be recycled.

Improving water and oil resistance without harmful additives

Ahlstrom-Munksjö, a Finnish-based global company that has a large line of fiber-based packaging solutions, recently released Grease-Gard® FluoroFree® papers that provide grease-resistance for food wraps, clamshells, microwave popcorn bags, and fast-food products without the use of fluorochemicals.

Ultimately, packaging has to achieve its purpose of keeping food fresh and transportable to prevent food spoilage, while minimizing environmental waste (both in the production and disposal of the packaging), without causing unnecessary health concerns from chemicals leaching into food. Unless we all find a way to stop using single-use containers, innovation is urgently needed to achieve this deceivingly complex challenge for such everyday, mundane items.

As more consumers continue to demand safer and more eco-friendly products, innovation in this area is bound to grow. Companies like Safer Made, a venture capital fund that invests in companies and technologies that bring safer products to market, are helping to spur this innovation.