Core Problems - present-day plastic food wrap (thin plastic film)

An important step to designing an XPRIZE for innovations in food packaging is identifying the core problems that are causing effective plastic film packaging (conventional and alternatives) to be a detriment to human, biodiversity, and ecosystem health, infrastructure and economic activity, while contributing to global warming.

Here are five core problems we have identified that we believe need to be addressed by a packaging track in a Circular Food Economy XPRIZE. What do you think? Are there any others we should consider?

  1. Resource material
    -Unhealthy | conventional plastics carry physical and toxicological aspects that kill and poison humans, biodiversity and the environment
    -Unsustainable | conventional feedstock and some bio-based alternatives depend on unsustainable resources in the long run or at scale and may even impact food security.

  2. Greenwashing | a widespread phenomenon with the majority of biodegradable material claims found as false; while among true material innovation - demonstration of capabilities in a variety of environments has been lacking

  3. Waste mismanagement
    -Film is largely unrecycled due to low value
    -Majority goes to landfill and alternatives still leak to the environment due to material characteristics
    -Lack of public understanding regarding disposal

  4. Cost competitiveness
    -Currently non-competitive | with conventional plastics, yet its market growth projection is significant
    -Extra cost | special disposal requirements introduce potential extra cost

  5. Scalability
    -Insufficiently comparable functionality to conventional plastic wrap | while considered satisfactory, large corporations seek significant comparability
    -Production at scale sustainability | compete with energy and water usage of plastic and oil for plastic
    -Production rate | as companies seek minimal disruption to business, they ask for production at scale before investment and product adoption

Please leave any ideas, suggestions, thoughts, or questions around these five core problems (or others you believe should be considered) here in the comments!

@eakinyi @LHanson @Joanne @Utobou @Thanku @AustinClowes @iduaolunwa @AKB @kjbradford @marsxr @bngejane @renskelynde @kcamphuis @ricardoyudi @NoraEatREAL @neillk @jcoonrod @FranckSaintMartin @Olawale @LaurenTurk @barbswartzentruber @yusuke - here is our new topic on core problems for packaging; what do you think? Any items that jump out at you as key things to explore?

Related to #3.
I would add the need for connection to municipal or local waste management policy and procedures re what can me considered compostable. By way of example, there was great work from our university to create a compostable coffee pod but there was a lack of policy level engagement and it turned out not to meet the compostability standards and could not be accepted in the organics facility.

The five points are all worthy of consideration @NickAzer and @Eti

In terms of the resource cycle (production and waste (resource) management) you might find a great deal of inspiration from the concept called Zero Waste. As the name implies its aim is to have no waste and regard everything as a resource to be Reused and/or Recycled. There’s also a third R in the waste management hierarchy: Reduce consumption. That might mean creating more durable products that have a longer lifetime. I’m not quite sure if this would directly apply to plastic films in food packaging. But as we are an innovative bunch it is here for potential consideration too.

Zero Waste encourages thought on the design side too, so that products are made durable, maintainable, upgradeable, modular and reusable. It also makes sense to design materials that can be easily and cheaply recycled.

With regard to “greenwashing” and biodegradable material claims, we should seek out materials that breakdown chemically into safe materials, rather than physically breakdown into smaller fragments. Small fragments and micro-plastics are a big concern. Just to clarify: fragments of conventional plastic should be avoided, fragments from an alternative that is safe (in all biological aspects) might be acceptable. Consider what happens when fragments breakdown to the nano-metre level. For example, is the material safe to breathe in (unlike say asbestos), is the material safe to consume, and is it safe in the blood stream. [These aspects have been concerns in the (air) pollution sector for decades - we can avoid repeating the same mistakes again by testing these aspects at the start, and so prevent accidental ugly innovations.]

We should seek out safe plastic alternatives that are safe to consume [although I do not recommend we eat packaging for health (contamination) reasons], including all of their degraded materials and chemicals. Also, avoid the addition of toxic additives (e.g. proven carcinogens, probable and possible carcinogens, and chemicals that degrade into potentially toxic compounds). [This might seem like common sense - but the industry does already use questionable additives in packaging and food!]

Presumably “Scalability” (under comparable functionality) includes the performance of the new material in existing machinery [see my post elsewhere about this aspect]. Or does a new category need to be assigned to this aspect.

@NickAzer This seems quite effective for a list to work with. I didn’t think about some of the points raised. The only thought that comes to mind is the effectiveness of the product to various food types. i.e. packaging for grapes may not be the same for eggs. Hopefully, that will be ruled out earlier.

I think this is a great list! If I were to recommend adding anything as a core problem, it would be effectiveness. Thin plastic films are not necessarily the most effective material type for their common uses, though we often take their effectiveness as a given. Apeel Science is a great example of innovation in this space that is both more sustainable than plastic films and more effective, specifically for highly perishable fruit and veg (I am not affiliated with them btw but would recommend reaching out). I know that you called out effectiveness in the preamble to this, but it may be worth considering that any improvements in the effectiveness of food packaging (i.e., reductions in food loss and waste) themselves have environmental benefits.

Thank you everyone for all the input so far!

@barbswartzentruber - how might you define the connection, a la the other other core problems listed here? Say, "solutions often do not align with regional policy, disrupting potential effectiveness’?

@akb - Zero Waste is an awesome goal for circular food systems! Re: machinery, that could potentially be its own category; do you have any further thoughts on that?

@iduaolunwa thank you, that’s an important thing to consider! (@Eti) And @AustinClowes, you also mention effectiveness; Idua, do you have any thoughts on Austin’s comment? Would you both say the core of effectiveness is preservation of the product?

Hi @NickAzer
Regarding the machinery context:
Packaging Films (Science Direct) - See Mechanical Properties

I also came across these, which might be useful in the broader context:
Optimisation of pallet wrapping film use (WRAP)
Wrapping Materials: Film, Paper, Foil

I added this comment to another section but thought it may be useful here:
Oh and everything @akb said

I came across these two which could be helpful:

@NickAzer The point raised by @austinclowes is valid. The product mentioned is different from conventional use as this covers the fruit individually and is edible. The article from @akb focuses on the effectiveness of the conventional wrap. Two approaches to the same problem. The latter does a little more with support as damage also occurs during transportation that leads to waste.

I would like to add some aspects that I believe should also be considered for evaluating proposed solutions.
To quote Biomimicry, Nature has had 3.8 billion years to find out what works and what does not. Nature has devised a system that allows life to flourish whilst growing its resource base. Man has developed a system that has allowed mankind to flourish, but by slowly destroying its resource base (killing the goose that lays the golden eggs, so to speak).
I believe that any proposed solution should align, as far as possible, with how Nature operates, as encapsulated by

  • Nature's Principles by Janine Benyus -
  • Permaculture ethics and especially their design principles -
  • Frederic Vester's Eight Basic Rules of Biocybernetics -
Secondly, and in line with Nature's principles, I believe every solution should be evaluated in terms of its regenerative impact:
  • How does the solution regenerate Nature ( restore and revive, as opposed to minimizing impact, which only extends the pain)?
  • How does the solution regenerate the community?
In Nature everything is designed to both survive and thrive as a species (me-economy), while simultaneously benefitting the ecological system (we-economy). So, for example, a tree provides compost, shade, housing and food to others whilst being singularly focused on surviving and thriving. Any proposed solutions should achieve a similar impact. For example Coca-Cola replaced one of the raw materials in its bottles with locally grown plant extracts. They have helped the local farmers with training and support, as it ensures quality and stability of supply. This benefited the local economy and community : Butler, David. Design to Grow: How Coca-Cola Learned to Combine Scale and Agility (and How You Can, Too) (p. iii). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition. The Shared Value initiative ( is another example, as are BCorp's in America. Regards

That is interesting - we are just in conversations with them and looking at how we can do a demonstration project - we need to find a large production crop and facility to test it out. That brings me to one of the gaps in the system which we are working on - matching the innovations with opportunities to test and demonstrate and then scale up. One of the needs to create circular food systems is some type of a food by-product materials exchange where waste byproducts from one industry can be an input to another. Simply having an app won’t do it - we have to learn more about the social capital and connections that are needed and the obstacles for to making this successful.

Thank you all for some very insightful contributions!
It’s clearly a large job that we have at hand, designing this competition in a way that benefits multiple aspects at the same time.

0 waste, effectiveness of the product and how it reacts with different food types, connections with manufacturing and waste management systems, the importance of matching the innovations with opportunities to test and demonstrate and then scale up are all very important points to consider.

The next step, is for us to see how we can best incorporate all of these considerations as we decide on what teams need to demonstrate to win the competition and how we test and assess each team submission.

One thing we’ve been hearing repeatedly is ‘you can’t ask for everything in one competition’. We’re encouraged to put more weight on one or two of the following but not all:

  1. sustainability of the source material of the packaging
  2. effectiveness and functionality of the packaging during use
  3. sustainable disposal at end of life (either through circularity or biodegradability or something else.)

@barbswartzentruber @akb @iduaolunwa @austinclowes @Thanku @schalkj
Considering the state of innovation, scalability, and market readiness, which of these three or which combination would you prioritize for an XPRIZE competition?

I think you have it in the right order, with 1 and 2 being my favs. I go back and forth on which is primary. I get the functionality piece so less is lost into an ecosystem (energy, micro plastics, etc.), but I am not sure we are at the tech level to produce something that goes to zero just yet. So i lean towards starting at the seed level / ie source material. If plastic (even in part) is not used in the first place, for example, then it can’t leak into the larger ecosystems.

All good points @Caroline
Biodegradability and non-toxic properties are vital because as we have learnt beyond all doubt, sadly, too many people litter, and waste products and packaging end up everywhere, eventually - even on a global scale.

I am a chemist. I see how the world is changing and think about where I believe it should go. Fossil fuels have been a key in the advance of human prosperity. Now we are going to abandon their use, as quickly as we can, as fuels. Natural gas and petroleum are also the feedstocks for almost all chemicals and plastics. Plastics of all kinds have huge advantages over other materials, that is why they are so widely used. We should continue to advance chemistry largely based on gas and oil for making useful things like plastics. Now, as to plastics–
It seems to me plastics can have three properties (beyond not being harmful): (1) Limited life, able to safely “end” when no longer useful. I imagine plastic-eating bacteria embedded in packaging inks that are released and eat it after a suitable time. (2) Highly durable plastic, made into items of lasting value. These plastics (Delrin = polyacetal is my favorite) are already available but often not used because many industries thrive on our throw-away economy–this must change. I imagine plastic jars and bottles for food made in standardized forms that can be used indefinitely and interchangeably. (3) Easily recycled. Renewable energy has become very inexpensive–about 1.5 cents/kWh at the grid production level, if storage is not required. I imagine a society where all waste /garbage is sorted and repurposed using intermittent, low-cost energy. Using energy, we can reconstruct valuable products from virtually any waste, even from carbon dioxide! Recycling of plastics, metals and glass would be a part of the process.

Thank you everyone!
So to summarize re: Caroline’s ranking question, we have:

  1. sustainability of the source material of the packaging (ThankU , AKB)
  2. effectiveness and functionality of the packaging during use (ThankU)
  3. sustainable disposal at end of life (AKB)

Would you say this is correct, @Thanku and @akb?

@barbswartzentruber @schalkj @iduaolunwa @austinclowes - do you have any votes you might cast for two among these three in terms of highest-priority?

Wow. That’s a tough one. I am going with door number one, sustainability of source material, assuming that 2and 3 flow from that.

@NickAzer Yes sustainability is a worthwhile aim. It’s worth pointing out that this includes resource availability (and recycling the resources), and it also includes non-toxic materials and no pollution from any of the associated processes.