In March, photos from inside a Thai supermarket went viral. In an effort to reduce the ubiquity of single-use plastic, the Rimping shop in Chiangmai had replaced its packaging with local banana leaves. All kinds of produce was wrapped in the leaf and secured using bamboo string. Only a small plastic sticker printed with the barcode remained on each item.
Aside from inspiring social media, other companies took note. Big supermarket chains in neighboring Vietnam, including Lotte Mart, Saigon Co.op, and Big C began making the change as well. A Lotte Mart representative expressed hopes that the effort would expand past produce to packaging fresh meat.
The fully biodegradable leaves of banana trees are abundant in Southeast Asia, and their natural wax coating makes them a viable option for packaging certain types of food. And using the leaves doesn’t require cutting down trees; leaves fall when bananas are picked.
The practice of repurposing banana leaves dates back centuries in Indian and Philippine culture, where it was initially used instead of paper.
In Thailand other natural materials are also regularly used as food containers, from coconut shells to pandan leaves. But aside from its attractive properties—waxy, water-resistant—there’s a more obvious reason that the banana leaf presents a viable solution to the glut of single-use plastic. Globally, we eat a lot of bananas: they are one of the cheapest and most consumed fruits worldwide. Data shows that, between 2000 and 2017, global banana production grew at a compound annual rate of 3.2%, reaching a record 114 million tons in 2017. Growing demand incentivizes producers to annually increase land allotted to their cultivation.
A number of innovations are bringing new technology to the centuries-old material. Banana leaves degrade within three days before being tossed away as waste. One young Indian inventor, Tenith Adithyaa, has developed a process to boost the leaf’s physical properties, making it a viable, and sustainable, alternative to paper and plastic. By reinforcing the cell walls and plant organs, Adithyaa asserts, the aging process slows down to three years. After its strengthened, it can be turned into plates, cups, and other containers, able to resist higher temperatures and greater weight than in its original, natural state.
Meanwhile, a Peruvian project called Bio Plant has already created biodegradable dishes using banana leaves, and they only take two months to break down (compared to the 500 years it takes styrofoam). With the help of the Innóvate Peru Program and newly designed equipment, the team is able to churn out 50,000 dishes per month.
Other companies are using natural materials to design a new customer experience in the air. In an effort to address the airline industry’s astounding garbage problem, British design firm PriestmanGoode has proposed a new economy meal tray they designed using recyclable and compostable materials, including the banana leaf. The goal, PriestmanGoode’s Jo Rowan told The New York Times, is “getting people to think about the way that they travel and also getting airlines and the service providers to think about what they offer.”
By creating containers made of natural materials that people recognize—not simply a natural-hued bowl actually filled with harmful chemicals—the effect is two-fold. As consumers, we waste less plastic. And we do so consciously, creating connections between the natural world and our own with each vegetable we buy at the grocery store and each airline meal we eat.
As with all alternatives to plastic, cost remains a determining factor. While banana leaves are readily available in tropical locales, getting them to, say, New York City, might be more emissions intensive than beneficial. Additionally, like all plant based packaging materials, banana leaves are a resource with seasonal availability.
There are also threats of disease on these plants. The rise of Black Leaf Streak disease, aided by changing climate conditions, can decrease plant yield by up to 80 percent and render the leaves unusable.
Ultimately, banana leaves join the ranks of other ingenious, inspiring materials that we hope to see more of in grocery stores and at fast-casual restaurants. Sometimes change can start with a story of a local grocery store simply trying something new.