Business Unusual

How mushrooms and milk might solve a plastic packaging problem

There is an expectation that new problems need new solutions. Sometimes we might find the solutions in things that are not new and decidedly low tech.

Since the world began using plastics in the 1950s it has found an application in almost every aspect of our lives. You are rarely ever more than an arm's length away from something that is made of plastic and as it has gotten cheaper and easier to produce we have begun using it for the most marginal applications. Single-use plastic is the catch-all term to describe the considerable volume of instant rubbish effectively created when we use a plastic spoon, straw or wrapper.

One option is to revert to what we used before plastic, and while possible, two generations that have grown up with plastic will struggle to give it up. Despite the food and retail industry sometimes using unnecessary amounts of packaging, there is no question it has reduced food waste during packing, transport and display.

Packaging used to to get the items to the retail outlet could be sent back to the supplier and used again, but it is harder once the item gets to the consumer as much of the packaging is not easily recycled and collecting it back from consumers or relying on them to return it is unlikely.

Nevertheless, a few companies are trying to find a way to keep the products well-packaged and still reduce the waste. There are two main types. Bring your own container model and send the container back model.

The bring your own container is already available in SA with a small but growing number of stores like ShopZero and Nude Food in Cape Town. Responsible consumers bring their own containers or buy the sort that they can reuse.

The milkman returns

The “milkman model” has grown out of this which looks to return to the time when our empty milk bottles left outside would be replaced with full ones every morning. The practice is over 200 years old but stopped in most places by the end of the 1980s.

Now using an online order, you can have the items you want to be delivered in reusable containers and your “old” container collected. The service was hailed as the start of a growing movement supported by a small but significant group of retail brands. The startup service Loop is hoping to return to the milk delivery service of days gone by.

But South Africa can look to stores like ShopZero that offers that service weekly to residents of Cape Town already. After paying an initial deposit for items, subsequent orders are charged only for the products.

The shift to becoming more responsible consumers has many converging influences, and smart marketers have responded with services like the ones mentioned above. But they are still few and far between. Our knowledge of recycling is at best basic with many probably assuming that most plastic packaging can be recycled when the reality is more complicated.

The most common plastic for food packaging is Polyethylene Terephthalate. Better known as PET; bottles we use for water, and soft drinks and many of the plastic containers for food are made of it. It can be recycled but should not be reused.

There are many more types of plastic that may or may not be suitable for reuse or recycling which is denoted by the number inside the recycling logo. We may ease our conscience by adding any plastic to the recycling bin, but it either needs to be further separated or will result in the entire batch being sent to the landfill.

Many of us, despite wanting to do better with recycling are still unaware of how best to do it as this small poll suggests.

For those that wanted to do more but did not know how to, Bea Johnson has become a source to understand and reduce waste in homes. Rather than just the reduce, reuse, recycle line, Johnson says Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot.

South Africa in some sectors has been improving in refusing single-use plastics like shopping bags and drinking straws, but we will need to do more to avoid the headaches being faced by developed countries when packaging threatens to fill landfills faster than they can be created.

Mushrooms like you have never seen them

The rot element brings us to the next development, mushroom-based packaging. The creator noted how fungus would grow in old straw bales and wondered if it may work as a replacement for materials like styrofoam. By creating the forms needed then filling with a growth medium and some fungus allows a container to be grown in a week. Once it has been dried, it is ready to use, and once it has served its purpose, it can be added to your composter to rot away leaving no trace.

It is not only packaging, but you can also now grow your lampshade or many other forms.

It need not only be used for rough package filling but can be used to hold delicate items and electronics in place. A refined version is intended as a foam replacement adding more comfort to shoes and more warmth to jackets.

It is early days still for these businesses and technologies but with the network effects of social media and a bit more awareness about the issues of plastic pollution, we may look back at the early 21st century as that strange time in our history that we did not use the milkman model and were willing to use single-use plastics.

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