The “best-by” labels on food packaging don’t tell you if the food inside is safe to eat. Food often lasts days or even weeks longer, and these printed dates are one of many reasons that Americans waste as much as 40% of edible food. A label printed in a factory also can’t tell you if your online order has, say, been sitting outside in the sun too long while in transit. But what if packaging itself could change along with food?
In a lab at IndieBio, a biotech accelerator based in San Francisco, a team of entrepreneurs has spent the last several months developing new bio-based packaging that can respond to the environment and detect safety issues, but can also be safely composted in a backyard. “We’re incorporating sensing mechanisms into our materials that allow it to detect things like spoilage or even cold chain monitoring,” says Viirj Kan, CEO of the startup, called Primitives.
Kan and cofounder Noa Machover developed the core sensing technology as students at MIT. While it has multiple applications, they saw particular potential in thin-film packaging because the new material is compostable, so it can help tackle the problem of plastic waste as it gives new functions to packages. Typical thin-film plastic—the material used in pouches, bags, and wraps around products like meat—can’t easily be recycled because it’s made in multiple layers of different plastics that can’t be separated. Even if the infrastructure to recycle it existed, there’s a lack of demand to buy the recycled material.
“We were talking to waste management facilities, talking to different government officials, and talking to potential customers, to understand what it is that they want and need and what the major problem is,” Kan says. “We’ve been able to validate that flexible film is one of the biggest problems in the plastics pollution issue, so we targeted and focused on that.”
The basic material, without added sensing capabilities, is made from renewable sources like algae, which has the advantage of sucking up large quantities of CO2 as it grows. The company is also exploring the use of other feedstocks for the algae, like agricultural waste. On its own, the new biomaterial can block oxygen more effectively than current petroleum-based film packaging, helping it keep products inside fresh longer. It also blocks damaging UV-B rays. In tests, it breaks down more easily than other compostable plastic, and is designed to be compostable in a backyard rather than only in industrial composting facilities, like many compostable plastic products.
To make the packaging “smart,” the startup can incorporate new functions that mimic natural mechanisms to respond to changes in the environment. The mechanisms are inspired, for example, by the way that pine cones respond to humidity to change shape and release seeds, or the way that flowers can emit compounds to change color. Variations in the technology can be used for different products. “It could be supplement packaging that indicates when it’s been tampered with by changing color, or insulin labels that respond to high temperatures to tell you that it’s no longer safe,” says Kan. A wrap around beef or plant-based chicken could indicate if the food has gone bad before someone smells or tastes it. The startup has demonstrated that the sensing technology works in the lab; now it is working to commercialize the technology.
In its first product, which the company plans to launch later this year, it will focus first on offering just compostable film packaging. The added sensing features will come in later products. “The first product we’re trying to develop is compostable cannabis packaging that you can bury in your garden,” she says.