There's Green on the Horizon
Things are looking pretty scary in the climate crisis at the moment. It's difficult to have any faith in governments and major companies, when it feels like every day a new mining project gets approved.
Here's some good news: there are people who are looking for alternatives. Lots.
Tons of businesses and scientists are partnering to source renewable materials that can continue powering our world.
And incredibly, lots of these products are already on the market.
Let's take a look at five renewable resources that are causing a splash. These naturally-occurring materials have a variety of uses, but we'll focus predominantly on the ones that'll have an influence on the packaging industry.
Let's unpack. Haha!
A group of very clever people have figured out how to use mushrooms - our wonderful, versatile friends - in packaging and clothing. Ecovative was founded in 2017 by Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre, when they had the idea to develop mycelium make Mushroom Packaging.
For those who don't spend their free time Googling plant-based packaging alternatives, mycelium refers to the root-like structure in fungi. Ecovative discovered that it was possible to make an alternative to polystyrene foam using the material, which is a huge relief to our beaches.
Some quick facts on mycelium packaging:
- It's grown in large sheets over a period of 7 days;
- Combined with hemp hurd (a byproduct of the fibre hemp industry);
- Breaks up into small bits after use;
- Fully home compostable in 45 days;
- Enjoys a 30-year shelf-life in dry indoor conditions;
- Cradle to Cradle Gold Certified;
- Requires 12% of the energy required for plastic production, with 90% fewer carbon emissions; and
- The products are flame- and water-resistant.
Australian company Fungi Solutions use a similar process. They take on waste materials like sawdust, shred and sterilize them, and then introduce them to the fungi culture.
This provides food for the mycelium, meaning its roots can grow and bond the materials together. Plus, the product becomes a sort of beautiful dustbin.
Fungi Solutions, mycelium packaging
Food-based leather alternatives
Mycelium is also being used to make 'mushroom leather'.
Ecovative partnered with Bolt Threats to create Mylo, a pioneer of the bio-based leather movement.
Mycoworks has developed their own products made of mushroom roots, known as Fine Mycelium, which is the first biomaterial with the same leather standard as cowhide.
But if you're after a leather alternative that can be made in minutes and seconds, rather than the days it takes to cultivate mushrooms, then Mirum is your guy.
Mirum is a recyclable and circular bio-based material created by Natural Fiber Welding. Mirum is comprised entirely of bio-neutral ingredients. It's made with FSC certified natural rubber, colorants and fillers such as biomass charcoal and clays, as well as plant-based oils and waxes.
Altering the ingredients to suit the colour and style of the leather, NFW also uses by-products of other industries, such as coconut husk fibre or cork powder.
Mirum is then bonded with a patented curative, sourced from renewable feedstocks and made entirely from plants.
This is a total game changer, because most plant-based or vegan leathers require a synthetic adhesive to keep the whole thing together and meet flexibility and durability requirements. Even faux leather is made from PVC, nicknamed the 'poison plastic'.
Old Mirum can be returned and made as good as new again. And even if it's given the time to decompose, it does so with grace and nutrients, rather than pollutants.
The founding company's been getting a lot of attention from some big brands. New Balance, Wolverine Worldwide, Camper, Deckers and Allbirds have all recently pledged to join Mirum's Circular Footwear Collective.
Meaning we're likely to be seeing a whole lot more bio-based leather in the future.
Mirum, plant-leather bag
It would be easy to write an entire blog on why hemp is the absolute bomb.
Hemp needs only a little water, pesticides, or fertilizers for a whopping yield. A hectare of industrially-grown hemp can provide roughly 5 tons of cellulose in a year.
It can also grow in a variety of soils.
This means that not only does it take less resources to grow like a weed, but it can also be planted locally to manufacturers. Packaging made with hemp products will only need to travel a short distance to get to your doorstep, and creates jobs within the local community.
The ol' hurd is a big up-and-comer in the renewable resource industry. Hurd refers to the cellulose-dense inner core of the hemp plant's stem, also known as the shiv (watch out for these guys on a dark street corner).
The high cellulose levels in the hurds are what make them so handy for producing industrial materials.
Hemp hurds are currently being used in:
- A concrete alternative known as Hempcrete
- Kitty litter and animal bedding
- Wood pellets
And when it's comes to packaging, it's useful for creating a range of materials.
As mentioned above, it's already being used in Mushroom Packaging to bind the mycelium together and create polystyrene.
However, hemp hurds are also being used in fabric, bioplastics, and paper, all of which are in high demand in the packaging industry.
Due to the 40% cellulose content, hemp hurd is already a major ingredient in products like cellophane and other bioplastic materials.
In fact, Ford motor company was looking into using hemp in composite plastics over 75 years ago. It ain't as futuristic as it seems!
Hemp plastics are even sophisticated enough to be used in some 3D plastic printing.
Producing hemp plastic also requires up to 45% less energy than fossil-fuel based plastic - making developing it a no-brainer.
The use of hemp in fabric is a lot more old school and familiar. Hemp yarn can be spun from the fibres, and used in clothing, cloth sacks and hemp cord.
Recently, this company discovered a way to use hemp hurd to make high-quality activated carbon product for use in their sustainable fashion line.
Paper made from the hurds of hemp is slightly more lightweight than other papers, but it's easy to produce.
The chemical makeup of hemp hurds is similar to wood, so it's a perfect switch to make paper and cardboard. Plus, it's eco-friendlier than lopping down a tree.
Hemp paper is completely recyclable and biodegradable, and according to this source, can even remove carbon dioxide from the environment.
Hemp Plastic Company, storage jars
During the shearing process, some of the wool is deemed lower quality, and ends up in processing plants around the world. Until recently, wool offcuts have just been a waste product of the farming industry.
But now a few really excellent companies have found ways to use these offcuts as a replacement for plastic packaging.
Founded in 2016, Aussie company Planet Protector Packaging have launched Woolpack.
Sheep coats naturally thermo-regulate: keeping them warm in the winter, cool in the summer, and fluffy all year round.
Planet Protector have used these natural properties to replace polystyrene and polyethylene packaging protectors with cuddly sheep coats.
Sheep wool is biodegradable and compostable, and is sealed in a recyclable food-grade film.
Planet Protector also notes that the squishiness of the wool is an added benefit, because it acts as the perfect armour during the package's ride in the post.
Wool has been found to outperform polystyrene, and Planet Protector have developed a Food, Pharma and Seafood protector range, as well as tiny pouch protectors and ice packs.
Estonian company Woola has found another use for the offcuts - a bubble wrap alternative, as well as bottle sleeves and wool envelopes.
They've found that wool's natural elasticity, water repellency, and temperature resistance has made it the ideal packing material for delicates. It's even durable enough to be reusable!
Woola, bubble wrap
Not to be dramatic, but the uses scientists have found for algae are going to blow your entire mind.
This stuff used to make me slip over in the pool, and now it's going to save the world. Never judge a slime by it's slip-factor.
Algae is essentially a photosynthetic organism, and can range from the soft, squishy bits in ponds, all the way up to giant kelp.
Just like plants and trees, algae sequesters CO2 from the atmosphere. The best part is that they can photosynthesize at a much higher rate: 1m3 of algae culture is equivalent to 100m2 of forest in carbon capture.
It actually produces over half the world's oxygen!
And if you didn't love it enough already, algae also doesn't need land, fertilisation, or freshwater to grow, which is a huge bonus.
There's already been waves made in the packaging industry with algae-related plastic alternatives.
A CSIRO-funded start up has recently created Uluu, a seaweed-infused polymer that will hopefully be able to replace plastics. It's also recyclable and compostable.
UK company Notpla is adopting the same method, using seaweed to create sauce, liquid and alcohol sachets. These can be eaten, but if you don't fancy swallowing a tasteless film as a chaser, they'll also biodegrade completely within a matter of months.
On the printing side of the packaging industry, Living Ink has created the world's first algae-based ink. Most pigments currently in use are petroleum-based, whereas this new black ink has a completely negative carbon footprint.
This means that using a 45-pound bucket of Algae Ink™ is the equivalent of planting four trees.
Best of all, their products have just landed in Australia.
What other mind-blowing uses are there for algae?
I'm glad you asked. Non-packaging related uses for algae include: jet fuel, vegan eggs, food colouring, running shoes, a vegan alternative to cod liver oil, yoga mats, clothing, an edible water bottle, animal feed, biofuel, and carbon fibre.
Notpla, sauce sachet
The Wrap Up
Each of these materials could, and do, have entire blogs written about them. While many of these products are still in their prototype or early market phase, hopefully it won't be long before we see them gain funding and popularity.
It's a great comfort to know that for every person that says yes to mining more coal, there's a slimy, green solution to climate change being developed in a lab.
The future of the packaging industry is becoming clearer every day. And it's looking pretty renewable.