Kombucha Slime Is an Edible Solution to the World’s Plastic Problem
Produce can be wrapped in biodegradable ‘Scoby’ sheets, then tossed or eaten
Kombucha, the hip health drink with a vinegary sweetness, has taken the wellness world by storm, but its slimy byproduct may soon transform sustainability. The fermentation process used to brew kombucha yields a “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast” — Scoby for short — that’s actually a living film on top of the liquid, like a mushroom cap. To Polish designer Roza Janusz, Scoby was an inspiration to develop a material that could close the loop on the world’s single-use plastic packaging problem.
Hundreds of millions of tons of plastic are produced each year, much of which is created for single use. The impact of discarded plastic on the environment has been catastrophic: It can take hundreds of years to degrade, if it degrades at all; clogs oceans and rivers; and breaks down into microplastics, which make their way into food and our own bodies. The rising global awareness of the damage plastic is causing has created an opportunity for Janusz’s ingenious alternative to thrive.
While Janusz was a student at the School of Form in Poznań, Poland, she developed a method to turn Scobys into usable, edible packaging for dry or semi-dry food. Her packaging prototypes were created by making kombucha: allowing bacteria to eat the available sugars in a liquid, producing strands of insoluble cellulose as a byproduct. Over time, the Scoby grows into a waxy, pancake-like membrane atop the liquid, protecting the kombucha underneath.
When Janusz realized that the traditional pint-size kombucha method was unsuitable for scaling up, she began to look for alternatives. In 2018, she founded the biodesign studio MakeGrowLab with environmental scientist Josh Brito, initially to research the qualities of her material. But as they worked, she says, “we saw the huge need for a commercial development of Scoby.”
Scoby packaging material is neither plastic nor bioplastic, it’s pure cellulose.
After a lot of trial and error, Janusz finalized her scalable, film-like membrane by adding vegetable-based agricultural waste to the bacteria and yeast. This improved the fermentation process, while also ensuring her product was zero-waste.
“We had to find a solution to keep the material home-compostable but make it scalable,” says Janusz.
The packaging has all the benefits of plastic, but none of its downsides: The durable, malleable texture acts as an oxygen barrier and is anti-bacterial, with a six-month shelf life — which can even be extended when used in conjunction with certain acidic foodstuffs, like nuts, owing to the material’s low pH. And though it might look, unappealingly, like a pig’s bladder, when it has served its purpose, the packaging can also be consumed. It takes on the flavor of the food it is used to wrap, and eating it is nutritious for the gut because it’s made of healthy bacteria. If it seems too unappetizing to eat, it can be completely composted and used to enrich soil.
“Scoby packaging material is neither plastic nor bioplastic, it’s pure cellulose — just like paper — but super paper that we can heat-seal like plastic,” says Janusz.
Despite Janusz’s customized process, scaling up has not been easy. Industrialization has been slow; Scobys are made of living microorganisms, after all. Even now, the average growth time per sheet is two weeks, with high production costs.
The team, however, has plans to move to a new, larger-scale facility to begin mass production. In the meantime, their experimentation continues. They sell samples of the packaging online to support their research and development teams.
This year, Janusz plans to release the first Scoby products developed with clients from different industries, including textiles, to demonstrate the sustainability of her idea. Ultimately, she intends for Scoby to replace plastic packaging, beginning on farms: She believes farmers could produce their own Scoby packaging on a large scale. Doing so, she hopes, will also limit the need to transport Scoby packaging, and the environmental impact that comes with it.
The “perfect future,” says Janusz, is one where it becomes the norm for all companies to grow their own packaging.
“But as we know, sometimes perfect is hard to achieve,” she continues. “We feel that the norm will be decentralized production. It can be the heart of every industry area and work with other companies and producers just like organisms — exchange resources to keep itself efficient and good for the environment.”
Because Scoby can be grown anywhere, and then fed back into the circular production cycle, it could prove a packaging dream. Other sustainable packaging initiatives include Mushroom Packaging by Evocative Designs, which is made from an agricultural byproduct of hemp, and the startup E6PR, which creates biodegradable and compostable six-pack rings out of wheat and barley waste from beer breweries.
Janusz’s Scobys can be customized to create films of different thicknesses, expanding their utility. A thicker film, for example, might be used for catering; an even sturdier one might even be treated as a fashion textile. MakeGrowLab has recently released “transleather,” an alternative leather fabric made using a similar process to Scoby packaging, and has plans to launch their first wallets soon.
“The increase in popularity of Kombucha is just the first step of a bigger movement,” says Janusz. “As a society, we start to see that by cooperating with biology we will easily make not only fermented and health-benefiting drinks but much more.”