nature’s perfect package

Can you eat Packing Peanuts? What about your Coffee Cup?

can you eat packing peanuts?

Have you ever gotten a box in the mail, pulled out whatever was inside, been left with piles of packing peanuts, and wondered: can you eat packing peanuts? If you think it’s a crazy question, it’s not—many people wonder if packing peanuts are edible, and many more are likely surprised by the answer.

While most packing peanuts used to be Styrofoam — chosen because the shipping method is convenient and cheap—that material doesn’t decompose well. That’s why biodegradable packing peanuts are growing in popularity. They’re usually made from wheat and corn starch, making them edible (although not necessarily palatable). Such natural sources are indeed biodegradable and thus compostable.

The question of whether or not you can eat packing peanuts opens the door to a larger and more interesting conversation about food packaging and waste. We’ve talked before about how buying in bulk, for instance, doesn’t just save money but often reduces packaging, which is good for the environment. Another way for packaging to be greener, though, is for it to be biodegradable or, if we want to take a step further and head towards utopia, edible!

Water Bottles are Getting Better

Water bottles are perhaps one of the most obvious examples of wasteful packaging. Increasingly, though, companies are working to make them biodegradable. Boxed Water is the most obvious example of this trend; the company’s carton packaging is 76% made from paper, as the company explains, and that paper is all from sustainably managed forests. All of the product’s packaging can be recycled.

Naturally, traditional water bottle companies are looking to emulate that progress. Dasani’s plastic water bottles are 30% plants and (again according to the company) 100% recyclable.

Still, packaging that is recyclable and recycled are two different things. Last year, Americans used approximately 50 billion plastic water bottles, and recycled them at a rate of just 23%. And reusable water bottles are naturally far superior when it comes to minimizing environmental impact.

A similar story can be told for edible packaging, as there’s little to no environmental impact at all. Enter solutions like Wikicell, invented by a Harvard professor. In a nutshell, Wikicell is an edible skin that replaces plastic packaging—kind of like the gelatin that houses mochi ice cream. Naturally, companies will still need some kind of outer packaging to protect anything edible from dirt and debris, but such solutions at least minimize the packaging inside packaging that’s far too common.

KFC’s Edible Coffee Cup

A more recent related idea comes from an unexpected innovator: KFC. In 2015, the company’s test labs were working on a 100% edible chocolate coffee cup. Naturally, the hotter the coffee, the faster the cup would, ahem, degrade. There hasn’t been much buzz about the idea since then and this option also hasn’t really taken off. I wouldn’t be surprised if they reused the format or perhaps sold the concept to a third-party in the near future, though.

Edible packaging is an ideal solution when it comes to considering the environment in food sales—and you can bet demand will continue to rise as we continue to waste bottles, wrappers and the like. Biodegradable is a good short-term goal, but actual edible wrappers should be the finish line. As for how you can tell whether or not you can eat packing peanuts? Put a little water on one. If it begins to melt, it is most likely biodegradable.

Bananas: the Perfect Brand Package Design

banana's as nature's perfect package design

If any branded package design could be considered perfect, what would it be? For exhibit number two, I offer the banana. America’s third most popular fruit in total sales after berries and apples, bananas comes with their own wrapper, a wrapper that is 100% compostable. Bananas are merchandised in high traffic areas and cross-promoted almost everywhere, from the cereal aisle to the deli department to the front door and check-out aisles. Though the banana is not top in fresh fruit sales, it sells everywhere. Looking for an edge in banana sales, the top three banana producers worldwide – Dole, Chiquita and Del Monte – developed a simple, enduring strategy to differentiate their commodity agricultural product: add a sticker.

What do you think of when you think of a banana? If you are of a certain age, you likely easily recall Miss Chiquita. Developed in 1944, a drawing of Miss Chiquita along with the name Chiquita adorned every hand-placed sticker on every banana shipped by the United Fruit Company since 1963. Miss Chiquita as a brand image continued to ascend and the company renamed itself Chiquita Brands International in 1990.

a bunch of bananas with a Chiquita sticker

Perhaps better known for pineapples than bananas, Dole works hard to differentiate its bananas in the European marketplace through a dedicated effort to share its transparent farming practices of both its organic and conventional bananas. Its brand image, a sun radiating out of the “O” in DOLE, is on the sticker but, perhaps more importantly in the European market, so is a five-digit code. Enter the code on their website to find out which farm the fruit came from its farming practices.

Del Monte, the third largest banana distributor in the US by sales, grew up along with the California fresh produce industry. Though the name Del Monte was originally used for packaging coffee sold to the Del Monte Hotel in Monterey, California, the company soon used the brand name to adorn canned peaches. Its brand, a red, heart-shaped seal surrounded by bands of green and gold, now includes the word “Quality.” Though Del Monte does not appear to offer organic bananas, the company has taken significant steps to reduce its environmental footprint.

The banana does not need a retail package – its sunny color and ease of use  (it even has its own handle) market themselves. But saavy marketers at top American banana distributors have effectively used a small sticker to communicate brand values and generate awareness that has endured for over a century. This tiny piece of fruit-based real estate effectively delivers the brand message. As an element of branded package design, this one is a beauty.

Is the Apple Nature’s Perfect Package?


If any branded package design could be considered perfect, what would it be? For exhibit number one, I offer the apple. Typically merchandised in high traffic areas in a wide basket to best display their natural beauty, apples seem to have been plucked straight out of central casting. The fruit ranges in color from yellow dipped in sunshine to pale green with rosy cheeks. Their gentle curves hint of lusciousness within.  The unspoken message clearly conveyed is a clean, fresh ready to eat snack. Is it any wonder that the apple was chosen by artists to depict the forbidden fruit that got Eve thrown out of Eden?

Powerful Apples

Apples have long been seen as temptresses and given mythical powers. Though the Bible does not depict the actual fruit, the famous biblical story of Eve being tempted by an apple gained currency after artists (brand designers?) in the 15th century portrayed Eve holding an apple. In Norse mythology, Thor, god of thunder, gained immortality after eating a golden apple picked by a goddess. And an apple seed-sowing, barefoot journeyman named Johnny Appleseed ferried apple seeds west, bringing a fruit then widely used for making applejack and alcoholic cider to the frontier (quickly followed by temperance activists who demanded that the morally upright burn their apple trees).

Apple’s Health Halo and Next Gen Packaging

Snack retailers purchase apples to boost their own health halo, using the comely fruit to convey a fresh-picked snack experience. The reality, however, is much of the fruit is tossed, unsold. “I’ve seen them throwing out 11 and selling one,” said Kevin Lozier, VP of Business Development for Aero-Cos International, the exclusive representative of a new company on the market, TreeCrisp2Go. “And that one’s mealy.” Enter TreeCrisp2Go. Recognizing the inherent push-back from customers who viewed fresh apple displays as dirty as well as the indeterminate age of the apple (diminishing the apple’s nutritional value), TreeCrisp2Go improved nature’s perfect package. They developed a “patented process and bag, which uses inert gases [to] extend shelf life while preserving crispness and flavor.” The apples are triple-washed, dried and packed within hours of harvest. Oxygen degradation, fresh produce’s main enemy, is limited because of the bag’s design.

TreeCrisp2Go places a limit on shelf life, too, defining their product as saleable for 35 days in ambient temperature or 75 days if refrigerated. ”We want to ensure that the consumer’s experience of the apple is pristine and clean, like it is right off the tree,” said Lozier. And the package changes the perception of the retailer, who now has a saleable product rather than one used only for display. That’s packaging that’s win-win for the retailer and the consumer. TreeCrisp2Go’s bag is not a panacea but the apple inside “meets the minimum expectation of what an apple should be,” said Lozier.

Improving the perfect brand package design.

Improving the perfect brand package design.

The original healthy snack, apples, just got a bit healthier. And, like those artists of long ago, the apple is still developing its own, unique branded package design.