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“Grow it, use it for packaging and then eat it”, encourages Róża Janusz, graduate of Industrial Design at SWPS University’s School of Form. Will organic packaging SCOBY, which can be eaten after use, replace plastic containers and plastic wrap?

Plastic tsunami

The plastic revolution began in the 1950s and today it is devouring its own children. The mass production of plastics, which had been used by the military before, began in mid-20th century. According to an article published in Science Advances by researchers Roland Geyer, Jenna R. Jambeck and Kara Lavender Law, the production of plastics reached over 8.3 billion tons by 2017. This amount can be visualized as 16,000 of the highest skyscrapers in the world, such as the Burj Khalifa building in Dubai or 1.3 billion male African elephants put together.

What about recycling? After all plastics can be recycled. Unfortunately, the authors of the aforementioned report cite data, which is not very reassuring in this respect. Between 1950 and 2015 only 9 percent of plastic refuse was recycled, 12 percent was burnt and the rest ended up in landfills, oceans and forests.

Of course, one might say that scientists routinely “sound alarm bells” and that these statistics are just numbers. However, it is hard to dismiss study results presented at the 26th United European Gastroenterology (UEG) Week in Vienna, which show that microscopic plastic particles have been found in humans, as the result of eating fish, seafood, sea salt, drinking bottled water or even beer and honey. This clearly indicates that the world is drowning in plastics. Can the plastic apocalypse be prevented?

SCOBY – grow it, use it as packaging and eat it

The European Parliament is waging a war on plastics and has declared a ban on single-use plastics, such as plastic straws, plates, utensils and cotton swabs. The ban will come into effect in 2021. There are also local wars fought in the name of a plastic-less world and one of the warriors is Róża Janusz. For her diploma project at SWPS University’s School of Form, Róża designed SCOBY, organic packaging for dry and semi-dry foods. SCOBY is like apple skin, which secures the flesh and is also edible. Yes, once you are done with SCOBY as packaging, you may eat it or throw it away without pangs of guilt (best on a compost heap), because it quickly biodegrades.

scoby 1Photo: property of SWPS University's School of Form | SCOBY | Designer: Róża Janusz

The packaging is made of kombucha, commonly known as tea fungus or kombucha mushroom. It is a symbiotic yeast and bacterial culture. This is where the name SCOBY comes from: Symbiotic Cultures of Bacteria and Yeast.

Kombucha resembles a gelatinous pancake, the size of a child’s hand. It does not look appetizing, but it is not the aesthetic qualities that are important here, but the properties of the fungus. The tea fungus, when added to sweetened tea, begins to ferment and results in a tasty probiotic drink, well-known to proponents of alternative medicine. So it is nothing new, however...

Róża Janusz decided to take advantage of kombucha’s properties. “When kombucha is fed agricultural refuse it grows in layers, like an onion and it creates a membrane on top of liquids. You put the membrane, which can turn into packaging for your lunch!, into a liquid containing sugars and you leave it for one to two weeks. To grow, kombucha does not require any light or sterile conditions or any advanced technologies. However, it does need warm conditions, temperatures around 25 degrees Celsius”, explains the designer.

Grow rather than manufacture

SCOBY packaging is perfectly aligned with the zero waste lifestyle, which encourages people to produce as little man-made garbage as possible. Bea Johnson, the guru of the zero-waste philosophy, boasts that the annual waste produced by her four-member family fits in one jar. Be like Bea. It is not an easy task, but SCOBY can help you to reduce the amount of waste you produce, including plastic bags, which is especially important as an average Pole uses from 250 to 300 bags per year. This is a measurable benefit, but let’s not stop there.

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Photos: property of School of Form | SCOBY | Designer: Róża Janusz

SCOBY packaging is not manufactured, but rather it is cultivated. It grows. To produce packaging that grows you need tools, just like you need them for agricultural production. “So how should we call producers of packaging that grows? Are they farmers or designers?”, asks Róża Janusz. Perhaps farmers of the future will be found not only in the countryside, but also in cities, underground, in blocks of flats, under water, in the kitchen or maybe even on Mars.

In the history of human cooperation with nature, there are plenty of errors and distortions. Basically, it is hard to talk about a cooperation, when one side exploits the other. Partially it stems from the linear system of economy, which currently dominates. In this system, an object is first manufactured, then used, and finally disposed of as waste. As a society, we have huge trouble dealing with the last phase of the process. After all, the 8.3 billion tons of plastics have not just appeared from nowhere.

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Photos: property of SWPS University's School of Form | SCOBY | Designer: Róża Janusz

In circular economy, objects are produced, used and then, instead of being stored in landfills, they go back to the production cycle. SCOBY is an experiment in the circular production process, where both parties, nature and humans, reap benefits. “Circular production must replace linear production, because there is no waste in this system. Waste is replaced by raw material. Cultivating grown materials means cooperation with micro-organisms for the benefit of the environment and when you design for the environment, you also help humans as inhabitants of this ecosystem”, explains Róża. Farmers grow SCOBY and get material for packaging. Once the packaging is no longer needed, farmers obtain a valuable refuse, which thanks to its acidic pH and a great amount of mineral substances may serve as fertilizer, which regulates the pH of soil or as a probiotic drink or animal feed.

SCOBY is an experiment in the circular production process, where both parties, nature and humans, reap benefits.

Hence, “grow materials” like SCOBY provide a real alternative to synthetic packaging. Before it happens, we must answer a few questions: Can this type of packaging be mass-produced? How to design the growing process? Will designers be able to work with a material that escapes standardization?

An introduction of grow materials to the market poses a challenge not only for designers, but also for consumers. Are we ready to accept packaging that comes with a characteristic smell and taste? Due to the characteristics of the material, the natural packaging is not uniform and is far from manufactured perfection. Can we accept this for the benefit of nature? Perhaps we no longer have a choice?

More information about SCOBY: www.scobypackaging.com i www.instagram.com/make_grow

Róża Janusz – graduate of Industrial Design at SWPS University’s School of Form. SCOBY, her diploma project, was presented at the Dutch Design Festival Edible Invisible, Warsaw Home (Talk Growing Materials) event, London Design Festival (Waste Streams), and Brussels Design September (Polish Trash exhibit).

Written by: Ewa Pluta. Translated from Polish by: Zofia Orly