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Not Just for Sushi: Seaweed is the Magic Ingredient for This Sustainable Packaging Startup

Gina-Marie Cheeseman headshotWords by Gina-Marie Cheeseman
Consumer Trends
Sustainable Packaging

European online food order and delivery service Just Eat is testing a seaweed-lined takeout box in partnership with sustainable packaging startup Notpla. The box is recyclable and, according to Notpla, degrades within four weeks in a home compost pile. 

This sustainable packaging uses seaweed to keep food fresh

The Notpla box is the first of the company’s products include a food liner made of seaweed and plant extracts, which makes the box greaseproof and water-resistant. Most paper takeout boxes contain synthetic chemicals, but Notpla says it sources paperboard that is free any such additives. The paperboard also contains grass in its pulp, which results in fewer lifecycle emissions and reduced water consumption when compared to conventional paperboard.

According to the company, production of the Notpla box prevents 550 pounds (250 kilograms) of carbon emissions and over 790 gallons (3,000 liters) of water per metric ton of carton board when compared to conventionally manufactured carton board.

Just Eat, which started in a Danish basement in 2001 and is now doing business in 12 countries, launched an initial trial of the boxes with three of its restaurant partners in London. The company says the trial alone will prevent about 3,600 plastic boxes from entering the waste stream. And when it's over, Just Eat will assess whether it is feasible to roll out the box to the company’s restaurant partners across the U.K. and other Just Eat markets.

“We’re delighted to bring this new takeaway box to trial and look forward to assessing the results with the aim to roll these boxes out across the U.K. and our other markets so that customers across the globe can enjoy their favorite takeaways more sustainably,” Andrew Kenny, Just Eat U.K. managing director, said in a statement.

“The takeaway food industry creates a mountain of waste and plastic pollution every year, so we welcome Just Eat's efforts in trying to improve the situation,” added Friends of the Earth’s Tony Bosworth.

Condiment sachets made from seaweed could be an alternative to plastic

The takeout box is the second collaboration between Just Eat and Notpla. Last summer, when the startup was going by the name Skipping Rocks Lab, it tested seaweed-based sauce sachets at The Fat Pizza, one of Just Eat's restaurant partners.

Companies can use the sachets to package sauces, salad dressings and condiments for takeaway. They're fully compostable and, according to Notpla, decompose within six weeks.

The six-week trial at The Fat Pizza in Essex assessed how feasible it would be to roll out the sachets more broadly across Just Eat’s restaurant network. A few months later, it launched another trial of the compostable sachets, with Unilever’s Hellmann’s mayonnaise brand among its partners. Just Eat said the trial prevented over 46,000 plastic sachets from entering customer homes and, thereby, municipal waste streams.

Plant-based sustainable packaging can prevent waste ending up in landfills

What makes Just Eat’s partnerships so groundbreaking is that most takeout containers labeled as “compostable” are made from bioplastic. These containers are not recyclable, and they can only break down in industrial-scale anaerobic digesters, not home compost piles. As a result, consumers have almost no options for disposal except the trash bin.

Since consumers have no option to dispose of most takeout containers, is there any reason why they should frequent restaurants and food delivery companies in the first place? Consumers have already made it clear they're looking for more sustainable and responsible food choices. Many are asking for plastic-free packaging to go along with it, and some say they'd like to see unnecessary packaging eliminated entirely. The evidence suggests more companies are responding in kind, but there is plenty of work that still needs to be done.

In the meantime, although bioplastic is more challenging to dispose of, it still carries benefits. Good Start Packaging, which creates compostable containers, offers several, including what it calls upstream benefits. First, compostable containers come from more renewable sources such as corn, sugarcane or paper instead of fossil fuels. As these containers come from plant-based resources, they generally do not contain potentially toxic chemicals used in many traditional plastics, such as styrene and benzene.

The manufacturing of these compostable and plant-based containers also consumes less energy than conventional plastic options. For example, polylactic acid (PLA), the bioplastic that is a base for clear containers and liners for coffee cups, uses 68 percent less energy than conventional plastic.

The downside to conventional compostable food containers and cutlery is that most of it ends up in a landfill and still requires much time to break down. The clear sustainable alternative to those types of containers are reusable options, say advocates like Clean Water Action, which claims “reuse is far superior to recycling.”

Image credit: Notpla/Facebook

Gina-Marie Cheeseman headshotGina-Marie Cheeseman

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by Mashable.com.

Read more stories by Gina-Marie Cheeseman

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