Could dissolvable packaging be the key to ending our reliance on plastic?

Innovative designers are working to create packaging materials that simply disappear in water — here, three of them talk methods, potential and uses, from tampons to noodles.

“In the world of instant ramen noodles, there is often more plastic than noodle,” product designer Holly Grounds tells Design Week.

Grounds learned the above lesson as a product design student at Ravensbourne University. Long days and nights studying had left her well acquainted with convenience food, she says, but the environmental impact of her snacking was a cause for concern.

“Convenience is an inevitable and ever-increasing part of the way we live our lives, but the planet is paying a high price for it,” she says. With an already established interest in biomaterials, Grounds set about trying to create a solution to the problem before her.

The result was a starch-based film wrapper laced with flavourings which, when mixed with hot water, dissolved to create a broth for the dried noodles contained inside.

The film developed by product designer Holly Grounds

Making our waste problem disappear

Grounds’ project is indicative of a growing interest in the potential applications of water-soluble packaging.

In the continual fight against plastic, dissolvable materials that disappear when they come into contact with water are an attractive innovation for packaging designers given that it can make waste vanish in seconds.

It seems especially useful for those working with goods and products which usually deal in single-use plastics. These have been identified by the United Nations as one of the world’s biggest environmental challenges of modern times.

Grounds explains the issue succinctly in the context of her project: “For a meal that can be cooked and eaten in under ten minutes, the plastic packaging can take decades to decompose — typically, 80 years plus.”

Add to this the fact that many single-use plastic products like films and straws are notoriously difficult to recycle — as they are widely rejected by kerb-side recycling schemes — and the case for dissolvable packaging becomes all the more clear.

Instructions devised by Grounds indicating how to prepare the noodles

“Many, mostly unsuccessful, outcomes”

While plenty of the work going on in the field of water-soluble materials takes place in labs, Grounds’ own experimentation was conducted in a student kitchen. It is perhaps testament to the idea that these innovations aren’t as unattainable as we might think.

“I encountered various challenges and many, mostly unsuccessful, outcomes,” Grounds says. “During the setting process the film often cracked, was too flimsy or too brittle.”

Factors such as air humidity and storage affected the utility of Grounds’ biomaterial film, but after enough testing an effective recipe was found. Then came experiments in how to incorporate flavouring, so as to do away with further plastic sachets. Grounds says smaller spices and herbs were quickly found to be the way forward, since these set more successfully into the film than larger dried foods.

The final product is a film which can be heat sealed to ensure freshness. Noodles are wrapped in the flavoured material, and then for hygiene reasons these individually wrapped parcels are packaged in a wax-coated paper.

“The most sustainable experience possible”

Applications for dissolvable packaging materials go beyond food, as period care company Daye proves. Since earlier this year, the brand has done away with paper or plastic packaging for its tampons and has instead developed a water-soluble material which can be discarded down the toilet.

Such a decision was taken to provide Daye customers with “the most sustainable experience possible”, company founder Valentina Milanova tells Design Week. After all, many period care products are already huge polluters of our world — the average user throws away somewhere between 125 to 150 kilograms of tampons, pads and applicators in their lifetime, with most of that ending up either in landfill or blocking drains.

Daye launched its first offering in 2017 with paper wrappings for its tampons. This was a good first step away from plastic, but Milanova explains the brand’s design engineering team knew more work could be done.

“Paper packaging is great if you can access a location to recycle it, but most women don’t keep their wrappers with them once they’ve used a tampon,” Milanova says. “We frequently change tampons on the go, in the office, at restaurants, in public facilities — so you don’t always have access to recycling facilities.”

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Convenient and reliable waste management

In both Grounds’ and Daye’s case, part of the mission of developing water-soluble packaging revolves around integrating waste management into the already-forged behaviours of consumers.

The former’s dissolvable ramen noodle wrapper means that users conveniently don’t need to source a way to dispose of near-unrecyclable materials; while the latter’s packaging has been designed to fit seamlessly into the action of changing a tampon, where users are more than likely already in a toilet cubicle or bathroom.

The process of developing a water-soluble packaging solution, that consumers could throw away worry-free down the toilet as they changed their tampon, took Daye around a year, Milanova says.

One of the reasons it took this long, she says, is down to considerations for how the product would be stored — a key point that all designers looking into water-soluble packaging have to focus on. In Daye’s case, the tampon wrapping needed to reliably withstand multiple environments without being compromised.

“We had to make sure the wrapping wouldn’t dissolve in people’s bags or on bathroom shelves, for example,” Milanova says. “Only once we had this aspect sorted, did we feel comfortable putting it on the market.”

“We don’t claim to have the solution for every plastic use”

Storage and an ability to withstand changeable environments is one of the star qualities of plastic, and why it remains such a big part of our lives. Indeed, there are very few, if any, dissolvable or biomaterial alternatives that can claim to work as well in all situations that plastic excels in.

But this isn’t where efforts should be focused, according to Rodrigo Garcia Gonzalez, co-founder of biomaterial packaging solutions company Notpla (formerly Ooho).

Gonzalez’ company is perhaps most famous for Ooho, a round, clear seaweed-based alternative to plastic water bottles, which can be consumed packaging and all. Other innovations that the company has or is working on right now include water-soluble films, condiment sachets and food netting. As the product list suggests, Notpla’s approach is to tackle waste on a case-by-case basis rather than create an ocerarching material.

“We don’t claim to have to solution for every plastic use,” he says. “But for unique contexts we have proven that our designs work.”

Condiment packaging designed by Notpla

“It’s really hard to justify a radical change”

The misconception that alternatives need to stand in place of all plastic uses is a barrier preventing more companies from exploring avenues like water-soluble packaging, Gonzalez says, since brands often get discouraged that no alternative will work for them because one alternative won’t. Another barrier is the “current status quo of the industry at large”, he continues.

“If you’re a player in the space you would have already invested a lot of time into your packaging, so unless you can just repurpose your existing lines it’s really hard to justify a radical change,” Gonzalez says.

Milanova offers an additional thought: “Since a lot of brands purchase their packaging solutions in a white-label way and then rebrand them, design engineering doesn’t really come into it.”

And then there’s the issue of money. Research and production of dissolvable materials on a mass scale is pricey, and those costs often get passed down onto consumers. In Daye’s case, the brand conducted research into its “community” to identify whether or not customers would be happy to pay a higher price if it meant the packaging and product were more sustainable.

The consensus in Daye’s research was yes, and as Gonzalez suggests, this is likely because of a wider public opinion shift on plastic.

“People are conscious of the problem, but are not clear on the solution,” he says. With more brands choosing to adopt plastic alternatives like dissolvable packaging, he believes this will speed up cultural change.

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