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The Packaging of the Future – Don’t Throw It in the Trash Can: Eat It!

Steinbeis experts launch ZIM network project looking into edible food coatings

Modern foods and beverages would be inconceivable without packaging. Although packaging protects contents and improves shelf life, once it has been used it has to be disposed, which places a major burden on the environment. If one also considers global population growth and the way this is fueling even stronger demand for food, not to mention the mountains of food that actually go to waste, we clearly need environmentally friendly packaging alternatives that will also help extend the durability of food. One potential solution might be edible packaging. This is where the ZIM network project launched by Steinbeis 2i comes in. Its aim is to develop the optimal formulation for edible films and coatings. Steinbeis expert Hartmut Welck explains why edible packaging offers particular potential in this area and talks about the challenges that need to be overcome in delivering the project.

Every year, vast amounts of food are simply thrown away in Germany. According to the Thünen Institute, around 12.7 million tons of food end up in the trash can every year, with a store value of over €22 billion. The majority of this waste – 55% or 7 million tons – originates from private households [1]. Vegetables (26%) and fruit (18%) account for the largest share of avoidable food waste in private households, followed by bakery products (15%) and leftovers (12%) [2]. Recent studies show that halving food waste originating from stores and consumers by 2030 (in line with the German government’s target) would reduce greenhouse gas emissions related to food consumption in Germany by 9.5% compared to 2015 [1]. Given this situation, it is important to think about ways to increase the shelf life of food and thus reduce the amount of food that goes to waste. One way to do this would be to use new forms of packaging. But there is another factor that highlights the need to find new packaging alternatives: growing environmental awareness among consumers. Customers are increasingly likely to reject plastic packaging, for example when buying fruit or vegetables.

Edible packaging – innovative, environmentally friendly, and efficient

Packaging plays an important role in extending the shelf life of food, for example by slowing down ripening processes and preserving the quality of products. To identify new packaging concepts – especially if this means replacing packaging made from fossil fuels – and to ensure they offer the right properties, alternatives will need to be developed. Aside from bio-based and biodegradable packaging, one particularly innovative new approach is to offer products in edible packaging. Covering food with edible “functional coatings” makes it possible to stem the amount of oxygen that comes into contact with food on the inside and slow down moisture loss on the outside. This reduces cell respiration, slows down the ripening process, and thus allows products to be kept fresh for longer.

This effect can also save packaging produced from fossil fuels. There are a variety of natural raw and residual materials to choose from, offering different levels of product protection. These include:

  • Chitosan made from shellfish/crustaceans
  • Alginates from algae
  • Vegetable fats (lipids and glycerolipids)
  • Vegetable carbohydrates, e.g. in the form of fructose
  • Animal proteins from sources such as milk ingredients (casein, whey)

In addition to offering biological and functional protection, using natural materials in coatings also makes it possible to offer antimicrobial protection properties. For example, certain lemon constituents can be used (such as flavonoids), ginger (such as cineole), garlic, pepper, chili (such as allicin), but also plant extracts, such as grape seeds. This method is becoming increasingly important, especially given the growing awareness among the general public when it comes to hygiene issues.

To also reduce the amount of packaging needed during transportation, mechanical properties can be added to food coatings to protect products from damage in the delivery chain (e.g. by using natural waxes or resins).

Steinbeis experts zoom in on edible coatings

Interest in such concepts among German food retailers is evidenced by initial examples of edible coatings, such as a product used on avocados by the US company Apeel Science. There are currently no EU or German firms offering such solutions. To do something about this and offer a German alternative for edible packaging – in this case as a coating on fruit and vegetables, along with corresponding functional benefits – Steinbeis 2i is currently setting up a ZIM network project. The aim is to develop the optimal formulation, which meet legal requirements when it comes to food approvals, and technical requirements when it comes to technical processes and cost-effectiveness. The project stakeholders also want to raise awareness and improve the image of food products with the coating. Consumers should be educated and feel informed about the innovation in order to develop greater acceptance and change their habits. The idea is to help reduce the amount of food that’s wasted and cut the amount of fossil fuel plastic used.

“Customers should not notice any differences in organoleptic or visual terms”

An interview with Hartmut Welck, senior project manager at Steinbeis 2i

Hello Mr. Welck. The idea of edible packaging is nothing new. For example, in 2003 the Italian coffee company Lavazza developed a Cookie Cup for its espresso. But until now, this type of packaging has not been widely used. What do you think the reason is for this, and how will the project initiated by Steinbeis 2i help you gain acceptance for the idea?

Food waste is a major issue at the moment. Every year, some 13 million tons of food are thrown away in Germany alone. That’s an average of roughly 85 kilograms of food per person. But much of the food that’s thrown away could still be used, since often it’s only discarded because it’s passed its best-before date or something doesn’t look right about it. Discarded food also has a negative impact when it comes to CO2 emissions.

This is where our edible coating comes in. The first thing we want to do is to develop a zero-taste coating for fresh fruit that only consists of natural ingredients approved under food legislation. Customers shouldn’t notice any differences in organoleptic or visual terms.

What opportunities, but also risks, does edible packaging offer?

Edible coatings offer major benefits when it comes to extended shelf life, but also in terms of reducing packaging materials, for example in storage and during transportation. The problems tend to be more about consumer education, although in that area we do have some good arguments for using edible coatings. We want to use a life cycle analysis to show how much CO2 can be saved.

Where do you think you’ll face the biggest challenges when it comes to implementation?

Aside from the goal of reducing food waste, which the German government has also committed itself to, one of the trends that are emerging at the moment is climate-friendly nutrition – as far as possible with no or very little packaging. This isn’t comparable to what happened in 2003, when Lavazza presented its Cookie Cup concept. According to a survey by Statista in 2017, given the opportunity, 87% of Germans would gladly shop without packaging.

The biggest challenge is developing the right formulations and ensuring any edible packaging that’s added remains exactly homogeneous, despite different surface conditions. Similarly, the existing coating processes – such as spraying, rolling, and dipping techniques – will need to be adapted to the selected media or undergo further development. As a result, projects in this area always entail a certain amount of time and effort when it comes to testing and development.


Hartmut Welck (author)
Senior project manager
bio-economics, nutrition, industrial biotechnology, and innovation management
Steinbeis 2i GmbH (Stuttgart)

[1] Thünen Institut, Lebensmittelverschwendung befeuert Klimawandel, press release, Oct 2, 2019
[2] DLR, 2020, Lebensmittelverschwendung in Deutschland