May 11, 2020
Odds are you have probably heard of the fermented tea drink kombucha if you haven’t tried it already. While the drink gained popularity in the 1990s and was deemed the most “liberal” product in America in 2009, kombucha actually dates back to 220 BC, originating in Northeast China.
Kombucha is often brewed from black or green tea and, according to Forbes, it’s classified as a “functional beverage,” meaning that it is a non-alcoholic drink that contains vitamins, amino acids and other nutrients associated with health benefits. A double fermentation process is followed by being bottled one to three weeks to contain released CO2 and carbonate the drink. Perhaps the most interesting part of the brewing process is the Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast (SCOBY). SCOBY is a typically pancake-shaped byproduct of the fermentation process that grows bigger and more layered with every batch of kombucha. Besides being home to the good bacteria and yeast of kombucha, SCOBY is being used for much more than just tea.
Polish design student Roza Janusz has been using and modifying SCOBY to be used as an eco-friendly alternative to plastic packaging. Not only is it 100% compostable and can be used to replace single-use plastics, but it is also edible. The organic membrane can be used to store light-weight foods like nuts or seeds and even salads. The product was developed as part of Janusz’s graduate project for industrial design at the School of Form in Poznan, Poland, in 2016 and was intended to help farmers grow their own plastic free-packaging.
In an interview with Matter of Trust, Janusz said, “Scoby is grown by a future farmer not only for the production of packaging, but also because of the valuable by-product, which is, depending on the concentration, natural fertilizer or probiotic drink. So maybe the packaging production will no longer litter the environment, and it will even enrich it.”
Janusz joined forces with Josh Brito and formed Make Grow Lab, where they could develop and produce waste-free materials like SCOBY packaging and even vegan leather. The lab aims to “spread the bio-revolution” and make farming more environmentally friendly across the globe.
Their SCOBY packaging combines biological processes that turn bio-waste into bio-material. The pure cellulose has unique features that do not need the additions of fossil-fuels and other non-biodegradable and toxic substances to produce. Not to mention, the packaging has an oxygen barrier (to keep fruits and vegetables fresher for longer), is home compostable, 40 times stronger than paper, self-adhesive, and not soluble in water.
Make Grow Lab has also collaborated with other sustainable companies to help create their packaging. Somma, a nature-friendly shampoo bar company, has partnered with the lab and uses SCOBY packaging for their products. Babcha Boy is the lab’s fermentation starter kit that can teach people how to ferment their own beverages, fruits and vegetables. The lab is also partnering with companies distributing coffee grounds, now packaged in SCOBY.
Plastic packaging is an intimidating industry to try and remake because so much of the world relies on it. But Make Grow Lab just started pilot production of their products in Dec. 2019, and are currently in the process of putting their items on the market. Something that started as a school project has developed into a full-blown sustainable company in under four years. Plastic is a problem, but good things are happening, and this is a reminder that innovation and opportunity can exist in the strangest of places.
Leah Wright is a senior studying professional writing and English with a concentration in creative writing. She is pursuing a career in editing and publishing, but hopes to eventually become a published novelist. When she isn’t in class, she can most likely be found spinning flags with various color guards, but she also enjoys listening to Bruce Springsteen and reading good books.