The Future of Bio Packaging
The adoption of new technologies always has a leading and a trailing edge. Take a look at mobile phones. In the 1980s only extremely wealthy urban professionals carried large, bulky and not very functional handsets. These days, in developed countries, even basic labourers and those on minimum wage sport an iPhone.
That development took less than 20 years, and the developing world will follow suite in less than half a decade. Compare this to televisions, which took nearly 50 years to become widespread, despite being far more basic pieces of technology. Not only is the rate at which new technology is deployed increasing, the rate of this acceleration is actually increasing! This exponential curve can be applied to almost all emerging tech, including bio packaging.
Paradigm Shift and the Law of Accelerating Returns
The widespread adoption of televisions and mobile phones owes its success to two factors, often espoused by futurist Ray Kurzweil. One is a well-known term, paradigm shift. When televisions started using transistors instead of vacuum tubes, they became smaller and cheaper. The same happened with mobile phone batteries and screens, which used new technology to make the cost of previously expensive components virtually negligible.
A paradigm shift is when a new way of looking at an existing problem suddenly becomes available, enabling a massive, rapid improvement in that field. Paradigm shifts are normally forced when the current system or materials can no longer sustain the growth in that area. The best example from the industrial age is Henry Ford’s invention of the production line, which suddenly made cars affordable.
The same shift is now occurring in the field of biotechnology, specifically bio packaging.
The law of accelerating returns dictates that as we develop technologies that improve existing tech, those improvements become cumulative, and eventually lead to an exponential curve. The amount of computing power available for R10,000 doubles every 18 months. On a short timeline this growth looks linear, but it is actually about to explode in such a way that it will appear almost vertical.
The Bio Packaging Paradigm Shift
Moving away from computing, there are several materials and technologies which are enabling a paradigm shift in the field of food packaging. The existing paradigm, plastic and Styrofoam packaging, can no longer be sustained. This pressure has forced the development of some new and exciting materials that herald the future of bio packaging
Bagasse is a by-product of sugar production, and it involves using the pulp from the sugar cane plant – previously disposed of as waste – to make sturdy, plastic-like containers. Bagasse can handle large variations in temperature, is water resistant, produces high-quality disposables, and bio-degrades in under 90 days in good composting conditions. The only thing it can’t do is turn transparent. Enter…
Poly-Lactic Acid (PLA)
PLA is similar to bagasse in that it uses discarded plant fibres and corn starch, but it has the added advantage of being almost completely transparent, and virtually indistinguishable from real plastic. Mineral water companies are already incorporating PLA into their bottles, and it makes perfect cold drink and salad containers that also degrade in 90 days.
Between these two emerging technologies in bio packaging, and many others on the horizon, we are looking at a revolution in packaging which will hopefully see the end of petro-chemical based packaging within a decade.