Plant-based packaging utilizes organic matter and renewable vegetal sources (relating to plants) to form the packaging around products. The abundant availability of raw materials for manufacturing plant-based packaging places less strain on the earth and its resource supply.
Tetra Pak was the first company in the food and beverage industry to make 100% plant-based milk carton packaging. The carton is made of plant-based polymers, fully traceable to its sugarcane origin. Following this trend, Coca-Cola made a 100% plant-based polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottle produced from natural sugars found in plants. These plastic bottles are renewable and do not use the fossil fuels traditionally associated with plastic.
Over time, plant-based packaging as a plastic alternative has garnered significant interest. Between 2018 and 2019, interest nearly doubled with a rate of 96.4% but went through a downward trend due to the pandemic. In 2020, a Plant Based Products Council (PBPC) research showed that 60% of U.S. consumers were receptive to plant-based products and packaging, with an estimated potential market of 136 million U.S. consumers.
Consumer consciousness and purchasing habits have become more attuned to positive environmental impact. Companies are proactively exploring plant-based materials of all kinds for consumer goods, inspiring sustainable packaging solutions.
7 Types of Plant-based Packaging for Your Business Needs
Switching to more sustainable methods such as plant-based packaging is a critical action that your business can take to respond to your consumers. Here are the types of plant-based packaging to consider.
Bioplastics are a type of plastic that can be biobased and biodegradable. Biobased means the material is made from a renewable resource, while biodegradable means the material breaks down naturally in the post-use environment. Bioplastics can be as durable as other types of plastic since they only break down in specific conditions. For instance, some bioplastics are home compostable, and some are industrial compostable.
Two of the most common bioplastics made from renewable resources are Polylactic Acid (PLA) and Polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA). PLA is a polymer whose raw materials include corn starch, tapioca roots, or sugarcane. According to Phys,org, PLA can look and behave like polyethylene, polystyrene, or polypropylene.
PHA is a biodegradable and readily compostable thermoplastic produced through the microbial fermentation of carbon-based feedstocks. PHA can also be made by microorganisms that produce plastic from organic materials.
Both PLA and PHA can be used as plastic packaging alternatives. PLA is often used for plastic films, bottles, food containers, deli containers, salad boxes, coffee cups, and compostable cutlery. PHA is used for single-use packaging for foods, beverages, and consumer products; medical equipment such as sutures, scaffolds, and bone plates; and agricultural foils and films.
Cellulose is an organic substance located inside the cell walls of plants. Cellulose derived from cotton, trees, hemp, and wood pulp can be transformed into different packaging materials that can be water- and air-resistant and vary in thickness and hardness so they can withstand heat.
Cellulose can usually be made into food bags, film, netted bags, and cellophane. Some applications for cellulose bags include dried fruits, biscuits, rice, dried beans, pasta, tea leaves, coffee beans, sweets, herbs, potpourri, and bath products.
- Mushroom Mycelium
Using mushrooms for packaging begins by mixing fungus sprouts or mycelia with seedlings or other residues from agriculture. According to Sustainability Guide, mycelia “consists of a network of wire-like cells that act as a natural adhesive.” This natural composite material has similar material properties to synthetic foam plastics such as Styrofoam.
Mycelium is lightweight, easy to mold, and easy to produce. Mycelium can be used to create organic plastics, scaffolding, clothing, footwear, and packaging materials. Mycelium foam can act like polystyrene foam, though stronger and more durable. The foam is also breathable, resilient, insulating, hydrophobic, and flame-resistant.
- Sugarcane Bagasse
Bagasse is a dry and pulpy residue left over from crushed sugarcane stalks. It is used as a biofuel for the production of energy, heat, and electricity.
Bagasse produces a pulp that possesses the physical properties suited for printing paper, newspaper, cardboard, plywood, particleboard, furniture, and biodegradable plastics. Products made from bagasse require less energy and cause less pollution than plastics products.
Foodservice packaging, which can replace traditional paper, plastics, and Styrofoam, can be produced from sugarcane bagasse. This can include plates, bowls, take-away containers, compartment trays, and clamshells.
Seaweed grows in still water environments and is more readily accessible than corn or sugar cane. Seaweed packaging is made through collected and fermented raw material without chemical processing. Since it is biodegradable and offers zero-waste benefits, seaweed can be a good choice for alternative sustainable packaging.
Ooho Water is a water bubble created by introducing water into a sphere. The gel-like structure, which acts as the outer elastic membrane, is formed by brown seaweed extract and calcium chloride. Ooho can be used to produce alternatives to plastic containers, bottles, glasses, plates.
- Coconut Husk
Coconut husk, otherwise known as coir, is a natural fiber found between the shell and outer layer of the coconut. When pressed, this fibrous material can be formed into packaging, which can often look like cardboard.
Coconut husk is often used to make doormats, brushes, twine, and particleboard and is a component in mattresses, floor tiles, trunk liners, and electric car battery pack covers. Coir is strong, stiffer than synthetic plastic fibers, and light; it also offers better performance, leading to cost savings for companies.
Rich in lignin, which is mixed with finely ground wood and other natural fibers to produce plastic granulates, coconut husks can serve as packaging alternatives to plastics.
- Shrimp Shells
Shrimp is the most popular seafood in the U.S., with one billion pounds being eaten every year. Chitin, a tough polysaccharide found in the shells of shrimps and other crustaceans, can potentially provide an environmentally friendly alternative to replace plastics.
Angelina Arora, an Australian student from Flinders University, studied the composition of shrimp shells and extracted chitin from them. Arora combined chitin with fibroin, an insoluble protein found in silkworms, and created a prototype for plastics.
This combination of two organic components created a plastic-like material that decomposed 1.5 million times faster than commercial plastics. This shows the potential of how shrimp shells can be utilized to develop a biodegradable, affordable, and suitable alternative for shopping bags and food packaging.
Planting the Seeds for a Sustainable Future
Many businesses are now attempting to decrease their carbon and environmental footprint. Brands can help make this a reality by taking responsibility for a product’s impact, from sourcing materials to disposal. Creating sustainable packaging solutions is ideal for brands to hasten their efforts to adopt more eco-friendly values.
Shifting towards innovative and alternative packaging, such as plant-based packaging, ensures that your environmentally-conscious efforts make a difference, as consumers are becoming more aware and receptive of sustainable practices. The visual appearance of a package can influence consumer behavior, and plant-based packaging is an attractive and telling way to express the desire for change.
It’s important to note that every form of packaging has a wide range of human and environmental impacts across its lifecycle. Although plant-based packaging offers many advantages, there are also applications where plastic, glass, or metal packaging has the lowest net impact on the environment as measured through Life Cycle Analysis.
To learn more about how your business can make a substantial change, collaborate with experts from Meyers to bring your sustainable packaging vision to life through professional printing solutions.