Anna Glansén: The Future of Biodegradable Food Packaging
Anna Glansén in conversation with Mathew Bate
Photos supplied by Tomorrow Machine
Food has become the new frontier for the convergence between emerging technology and sustainability. For Anna Glansén, one half of Swedish design studio Tomorrow Machine, this means innovating new ways to present and package food. From a smoothie container made from seaweed to a self cleaning bowl made with nothing but cellulose, Anna is pioneering the future of sustainable food packaging.
Mathew Bate: So, correct me if I'm wrong, but you started Tomorrow Machine back in 2013 with your friend Hanna Billqvist after you finished your studies at Beckmans College of Design in Stockholm, Sweden. Before we get into what you're up to now, can you tell me a little bit about how you became interested in design?
Anna Glansén: Yes that’s right, we started Tomorrow Machine in 2013. My parents aren’t designers or anything like that but my older sister and my aunty are both graphic designers. Maybe that’s where my interest in design comes from. I grew up in the 90's. In Sweden, at that time, product design was very much on trend and everything seemed to be very experimental and playful.
Was design for you always linked to sustainable practise or was that something you became interested in as you developed yourself as a designer?
My design interest started when I was very young; as a child I was always being experimental with my creations. My interest and connection to the environment was relatively strong, but I did not make the connection immediately that you could create products for a more sustainable world. My idea of environmental friendliness was to take the bus instead of the car. So I would say that my interest in creating sustainable products started when I started studying product design.
Why did you start Tomorrow Machine?
Our philosophy is to combine the creativity of designers with the knowledge of researchers to create the next generation of environmentally friendly products. Our main driving force is to make environmentally friendly products that are interesting and innovative. We started Tomorrow Machine because we saw a need to combine new technology and product design as soon as possible when developing new materials. Today we don't only work with new materials but we’re very passionate about emerging technology too.
Working with researchers is an interesting challenge. In the beginning, a roadblock for us was the communication between us and our researchers because designers work creatively but with a completely different work processes than researchers. I have learnt a lot from the way that researchers work. For example I only change one parameter every time I make a new prototype in a project, instead of maybe 3 or 5. Learning how to communicate with people that work differently has been an invaluable lesson.
What was the first project you developed for Tomorrow Machine?
We are very inspired by biomimicry and how nature creates solutions to problems. This is how we created our first project; a series “This Too Shall Pass”. We looked at nature's own way of packaging. In this case, we looked at the eggshell and fruit peel. In nature, the fruit peel and the fruit inside ages in the same speed. “This Too Shall Pass” consists of a smoothie package made from agar-agar seaweed, a rice package made of biodegradable beeswax and a oil package made of caramelized sugar, coated with wax.
The work you do for Tomorrow Machine is very progressive. What inspires you?
I would say that we’re not necessarily inspired by other designers, but the genius Kenya Hara was a huge inspiration for our early projects. I’m also inspired by Olafur Eliasson and of course biomimicry is where we draw a lot of creativity from for most of our projects. It’s funny, I have not really reflected on this much, but come to think of it, a lot of our inspiration comes from Japan. We often look at the artistry of Japanese candy and pastries, as well as Wabi-sabi, the essence of Japanese aestheticism.
Can you tell me a little bit more about each specific product from the “This Too Shall Pass” project?
Ok, so generally, “This Too Shall Pass” is a series of food packages where the package and its contents are working in symbiosis. In this project, we asked ourselves how packaging can be made in the near future using technology that is available today.
The smoothie’s package consists only of agar-agar seaweed and water. To open it you pick the top and the package will wither at the same rate as the smoothie. It is made for drinks that have a short life span and needs to be refrigerated. For example, fresh juice, smoothies and cream. The packaging reacts to its environment so you could, just by looking at the package, see if it has been exposed to excessive heat during transport.
The rice package is made of biodegradable beeswax. To open it you peel it like an orange. The package is designed to contain dry goods such as grains and rice.
The oil package is made of caramelised sugar, coated with wax. To open it you crack it like an egg. When the material is cracked the wax no longer protects the sugar and the package melts when it comes in contact with water. This package is made for oil-based food.
When we developed the packages we did a lot of testing to explore how different materials react with each other. For example, water melts sugar but oil does not, therefore sugar is an ideal material for packing oil in. To prevent the packaging made from sugar to react with the moisture in the air it is covered with a thin layer of wax on the outside. The moment the package is opened it begins to break itself down. The wax no longer protects the sugar and the unprotected inside comes in contact with moisture. The sugar packaging melts within a few minutes if it comes in contact with water or in a few days in contact with air.
You also made a self-cleaning bowl mimicking the natural cleaning process of a lotus leaf, which repels dirt. Not only did you achieve this but you made the whole thing out of cellulose!
So for that project we collaborated with Swedish research company Innventia. Innventia had developed a new cellulose-based material. Together we develop the self-cleaning plate and cup. The plate and cup have a superhydrophobic coating and therefore rejects dirt, like a lotus leaf. This means that it never needs washing. This is a product that not only saves resources during manufacture, but also when it is used because it does not need water and chemicals to be kept clean. It’s important to also note that although we are very inspired by biomimicry, our biggest inspiration is usually the actual material that we work with. Our goal, in this case, was to create a product based on the specific properties of the material.
Will the kinds of materials, products and packages that you're designing and innovating at the moment be normal in 10-20 years? Do you hope that in the future everyone will be eating off self-cleaning plates and drinking smoothies from biodegradable cartons?
We believe that that kind of products will be available much sooner than that. Although the materials we use are usually not very expensive, the initial manufacturing costs are relatively high. That's probably the only reason these products are not already available in the supermarket. There are so many companies around the world showing interest in new sustainable solutions. I think the kinds of products we’re developing will be part of our everyday life perhaps sooner than we think.
Working at the cutting-edge of sustainable technology, are you optimistic about our future prospects?
We are very optimistic, I think you have to be when working with sustainable design. We also see that the packaging industry shows great interest in more environmentally friendly alternatives. My only concern is that the change is not going fast enough. Overall, though, I am positive about the future and I believe that the next generation of sustainable products will be user friendly, smart and interesting. We need to combine the knowledge of researchers and the creativity of designers to make a more sustainable future possible.