Will seaweed replace plastics as sustainable food packaging?

22 May 2024

Hype & Trend Signal

Packaging can no longer be an afterthought for producers of bread, cakes, cookies and chocolate bars. Sustainable packaging – packaging that’s recyclable, reusable or uses less plastic – is the number one consumer priority in regards to sustainability, according to the 20,000 consumers who participated in our global Taste Tomorrow survey. In the food packaging world, seaweed is now being increasingly talked about as a possible successor to plastic. This prompts the question: can seaweed farms become the next-generation equivalent of petroleum refineries?

Single use is out, sustainable is in

Although the food industry will not be able to eliminate plastic packaging overnight, consumers are craving a change from the ubiquity of unsustainable packaging materials. According to our Taste Tomorrow consumer research, 73% of consumers around the world now believe all food products should be sold in sustainable packaging. Many of them are already putting their money where their mouth is. Our consumer study across 50 countries points out that:

  • 63% of global consumers limits single-use packaging when they buy food

  • 59% of global consumers actively searches for food products with sustainable packaging

Consumers in Spain, the US, Japan, France and Brazil have the highest interest in environmentally friendly packaging. In those countries, we see the highest amount of online searches and conversations on this topic.

Seaweed on the rise

There are many biobased packaging materials in the running to replace their non-recyclable counterparts, for example, materials made from avocado seed or fungi. However, many experts see seaweed-based solutions as the biggest contender at the moment. The global seaweed market has the potential to grow by an additional USD 11.8 billion by 2030, the Global Seaweed New and Emerging Markets Report 2023 projects. Much of the potential remains untapped, as most seaweed farmed today is used for direct human consumption. But billions of possible growth can be realized if seaweed-farmed products replace fossil fuels in the production of fabrics and plastics.

We are already seeing developments that are opening up the possible shift to seaweed packaging. Amazon, for instance, is funding the world’s first commercial-scale seaweed farm located between offshore wind turbines in The Netherlands. North Sea Farmers, the organization behind the seaweed farm, is researching the scalability of seaweed production there, as well as the potential of seaweed farms to remove carbon from the atmosphere.

After large-scale tests during the UEFA competition finals, Just Eat take-away now offers all UK restaurateurs the option to buy seaweed packaging for their deliveries. In the past, they’ve also experimented with sustainable sauce sachets made from seaweed. Consumers could simply dispose of the pods in their home compost or waste bin, because they were biodegradable in six weeks.

Why seaweed is the odds-on favorite

Seaweed-based packaging offers numerous practical benefits. For instance, it exhibits moisture resistance, enabling the packaging of wet or oily foods. Its heat resistance further enhances its versatility, making it suitable for microwave and oven use. Seaweed packaging can look and feel like plastic, while having the benefits of being breathable. 

Packaging materials made with seaweed can be made edible without using any adulterants or preservatives. The growth of seaweed also requires zero fertilizers. Even without extra help, it is a very fast-growing material. Under optimal conditions, giant kelp can grow up to one meter a day! 

However, there are more advantages to using seaweed packaging. Because it is biodegradable and water-soluble, it helps prevent our oceans from filling up with non-recyclable materials. In fact, seaweed cultivation can help combat climate change. According to Greenbiz, the production of 40 tons of dry seaweed from a hectare of ocean can absorb 20.7 tons of CO2 emissions during processing. It is estimated that as much as 75 to 80 percent of the oxygen on earth is produced by algae. 

Long way to go

Why haven’t we fully ditched non-recyclable materials yet, you ask? Well, because switching out food packaging materials isn’t an easy feat. There’s food safety to take into account and the shelf time to which packaging contributes. The production processes of sustainable packaging materials such as seaweed also have to undergo massive innovations before they are ready for commercial application. Currently, the production of seaweed packaging requires manual processing and the price is extremely high. On top of that, producers haven’t yet figured out how to scale production. 

From green goo to cute containers

If you’re still having trouble imagining how the annoying green goo from your beach trips can transform the packaging, here’s how it works: the seaweeds are dried and pulverized. The seaweed powder is then turned into a thick, viscous fluid that can be handled like plastic. It can be used to create a thin, translucent membrane resembling plastic, but it can also be used as a coating for paper or cardboard for food packaging that is moisture resistant. 

Frontrunners in seaweed food packaging

1. Kelpi

Kelpi develops recyclable, biodegradable coatings that turn paper, card and fiber into long shelf-life, sustainable packaging options that can be used across multiple industries. Besides food packaging, they are also working on the alcohol bottles of the future which consist of coated paper or fibers and develop beauty packaging that can replace the current multi-layer plastic options.

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This green-tech company is dedicated to developing bio-based packaging solutions to combat plastic waste. They started with an edible straw, but are now focusing on flexible packaging solutions in collaboration with partners such as Nestlé.

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3. Notpla

Notpla’s goal is to replace 1 billion units of plastic by 2030, utilizing seaweed and plants sustainably on a global scale. They create a natural packaging material that is biodegradable within four to six weeks. Notpla partners with brands and major events to replace plastic packaging, advocate for policy changes and educate consumers on sustainable choices.

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4. Sway the Future

Sway sources seaweed from a global network of vetted ocean farms, and works closely with these partners to contribute new research around biodiversity, water quality, carbon sequestration and social impact. Their product range includes versatile clear film, packaging with a seaweed-based see-through window and renewable seaweed resin.

Find out more >

Discover more on algae and sustainable packaging

Want to know more about the sea of possibilities algae has to offer? Find out all about the future possibilities in bakery and patisserie

If sustainable packaging makes you tick, you should dive into sustainable food wrappers and utensils that are edible.

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