Innovative food packaging, explained – National Geographic

A version of this story appears in the August 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Around tables strewn with Exacto knives, bowls, cutting boards, tape, funnels, and bags of hemp powder, mushroom parts, and sugar, a dozen graduate students from the packaging and industrial-design departments at Pratt Institute, in Brooklyn, New York, brainstormed.

Their brief? To create new forms of food packaging to replace the unsustainable designs upon which modern life seems to depend: single-use plastic beverage cups, lids, straws, and bottles.

Focusing on the long-lived detritus that typically accompanies take-out meals, the students baked and 3D-printed straws made of sugar and agar—a gelatinous substance derived from seaweed. They hand-shaped bowls from mycelium, the threadlike roots of mushrooms. One team designed sheets of black plastic that folded into take-out containers (seen in image above) and could be returned to a collection point, sanitized, and reused ad infinitum by a consortium of take-out chains. Another duo crafted an ingenious paperboard box with a fold-it-yourself fork/spoon combo that diners tear from a perforated edge (above). When lunch is over, everything gets pitched into a compost bin, which in an ideal world is, of course, never far away.

“We’re seeing a tremendous acceleration in the demand for packaging alternatives as the unintended consequences of plastics become more visible, both locally and globally,” says Kate Daly, of Closed Loop Partners, a social-impact investment fund that focuses on waste.

Of the 78 million metric tons of plastic packaging produced globally each