Wrapping food in plastic does serve a purpose. A plastic-wrapped cucumber at a supermarket may seem egregious, but the vegetable lasts longer and is less likely to end up as food waste; throwing out food can have an even bigger impact on the environment than the plastic itself. But the system’s reliance on plastic in its current form can’t last. In a year, the world uses more than 160 million tons of plastic food packaging made from fossil fuels, little of which is recycled.
In a lab at a Scottish startup, researchers are turning waste from the seafood industry into a new kind of plastic wrap that can safely go in your compost bin. “We’re in the process of developing fully compostable, antimicrobial food packaging which looks and feels to the consumer like the petroleum plastic version—but the difference is that it will not add to the millions of tons of waste that comes from packaging that has ended up in the oceans,” says Cait Murray-Green, CEO of the startup, called CuanTec (“cuan” is the Gaelic word for sea). “The challenge is to create something that does the same job, but through a sustainable source,” she says.
The startup uses a fermentation process, similar to brewing beer, to extract a material called chitin from the shells of langoustine, a type of shellfish related to lobsters. The fishing industry in Scotland generates huge quantities of shellfish waste. While chitin has other industrial uses, the typical process for extracting it is expensive, and so most of the shells are thrown out now. “The traditional ways of obtaining the chitin are to use harsh chemicals and high temperatures,” says Murray-Green. “That’s environmentally unfriendly, but it’s also expensive.” Instead, she says, “what we have done is ditch the idea of using chemistry and use biology.”
The process creates a pure, high-quality form of the material, which the company then converts into clear films that can be used in packaging. Others have tried to use the material in the past, but other processes created a yellowish film that consumers didn’t find appealing. The material is also naturally antimicrobial, adding another layer of protection to the film that oil-based plastic doesn’t have. When someone brings food home, they can compost the wrapper in their own backyard.
The company has prototypes of the film now, and it’s in the process of finalizing a round of financing that will allow it to finish development, step through the regulatory hurdles for food packaging, and then scale up. Supermarkets like U.K.-based Waitrose are already interested in using the product; they’re likely to begin with a plastic wrap for salmon, creating a circular loop in the seafood industry.
The packaging can be marked so that consumers know that it should go in a compost bin rather than the trash, or potentially marked with infrared dyes so a recycling plant could correctly separate it. Ultimately, though, the company hopes that the entire industry can transform, so consumers won’t have to think about how to dispose of a particular package. “We believe firmly that the best thing that could happen is that you get to a point where if you are creating packaging for food, it must be compostable,” says Murray-Green.
Chitin can also be found in other foods, such as mushrooms, and the company plans to use its technology to also create packaging and other products from other sources. “What we’ve set ourselves up to try and do is make plastic pollution history,” she says.