Trail runners are generally pretty good about minimising the use of disposable plastics. We run with soft flasks, hydration packs and collapsible, reusable silicon cups – all of which help to cut down on single-use plastics. Well-organised trail running races rarely have disposable cups at checkpoints and water stations, and competitors are encouraged to bring their own cutlery for food at finish lines.
Unfortunately, we're less good about our gels and bars.
As much as we try to clean up after ourselves, a number of those plastic-coated foil wrappers inevitably find their way on to the sides of trails and into bushes, posing not just an eyesore but also an environmental hazard.
Lizzie Wright, an industrial designer, hopes her invention can alleviate the problem and represent a step towards a more sustainable solution.
She has developed a 100 per cent edible and biodegradable energy gel package, named Gone, which breaks down in a matter of days with the help of rain and critters. “Everything it’s made out of you can buy at the grocery store,” said Wright.
The retail packaging that the gel packets come in is also completely compostable, made from paperboard and finished with laser-etched bioplastic.
Wright, an avid cyclist, hit upon the idea when she was packing for a collegiate 60-mile cycling race. She realised that she was packing a large number of gels.
As a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, Wright had spent a lot of time experimenting with natural materials and developing her own recipe for bioplastic. Through a long process of research, she had tried to produce a viable bioplastic whose application would have the potential to wean us off a dependence on non-renewable packaging.
Eventually, she settled on a thin, flexible, and translucent material, which she developed from her art studio at school. Then she came up with the actual design of the package, and worked to make their appearances “regular and perfect each time”..
One challenge Wright has faced with her biodegradable energy gel packets is their short shelf lives relative to the conventional plastic-coated foil packets. This may be a disadvantage, Wright explained, but it actually encourages more conscious consumption habits.
“While it may be a drawback, if you compare it to the foil packages, I would say it forces you to think about how much you’re buying, how much you need,” she said.
She also recognises that bioplastics aren’t a magic bullet to our plastic crisis. For example, many compostable plastics still have to be treated and disposed of properly. And the growing popularity of bioplastics may in turn perpetuate a disposable culture.
Wright is fully aware of these critiques. “The perfect solution is you use nothing,” she said. “But if we want to make the change, we have to do it incrementally.”
Forcing users to suddenly cut back on the use of a certain material may backfire, villainising environmentalism instead of promoting it. “I fear associating making sustainable choices with sacrifice,” she said.
A convenient, well-designed alternative, like her biodegradable Gone packaging, offers users a feasible choice, she explained. “Obviously, bioplastic is not the perfect solution,” Wright added. “But it’s a renewable solution, which is better.”