Students Create Plastic Packaging Alternative for a Sustainable Future

A pair of hands putting vegetables and mochi in PermaPak

PermaPak. Images courtesy of Selmić and Xi

PermaPak. Images courtesy of Selmić and Xi

by Peyton Sauer (BFA 2022)

In Chicago, less than 9 percent of the city’s waste is recycled. To combat the use of single-use plastic containers, School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) students Sara Selmić (MDes 2022) and Kelly Xi (MFA 2022), the creators of PermaPak and participants in the Biodesign Challenge, set out to create a new, more sustainable way of packaging food.

Selmić is in the School’s Designed Objects program, where she works with natural materials such as reclaimed wood to create conversations about human connection to nature and our impact on the environment. Xi, on the other hand, is in the Art and Technology Studies department, where she creates vivid, technology-centered installations informed by her background in biology. The two artists met in Synthetic Futures: Biodesign Challenge, an Art and Technology Studies course taught by Assistant Professor, Adj. Andrew H. Scarpelli.

A photo of a young woman wearing a tank top and a bolero standing in front of a stone wall

Sara Selmić

Sara Selmić

A photo of a young woman in a t-shirt with a star on it standing in a modern art space lit by pink and purple projections

Kelly Xi

Kelly Xi

The Biodesign Challenge is a competition for students engaging in biotechnology, an application of biology, or life as code, to engineer both new products and systems. The challenge is typically held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, but was held online this year due to COVID-19 restrictions. This year, 53 schools competed from more than 20 countries, each presenting a project designed to improve human lives as well as the planet. A panel of more than 60 experts judged students’ projects and selected winners.

Scarpelli’s course is designed to prepare students for the Biodesign Challenge. First, the class breaks up into groups that design and present their own projects. After the presentations, Selmić and Xi’s project, PermaPak, was selected to represent SAIC at the competition.

“[Scarpelli] had us all meet and mingle so we could figure out what interests were similar between people,” shared Selmić. “Because Kelly mentioned she was big into permaculture and had done work around that and I’m a big-time gardener and all my practice is focused on the environment, I approached her to be like ‘Hey, we both like permaculture. Let’s talk.’”

“It was organic,” Xi added. “I think we had a good amount of shared interests. We both had worked with mycelium before. Sara was really interested in this strain of mycelium that had a potential to break down plastics because of the enzymes it secreted. My background is in biology, actually. And Sara’s a designer. I think we found a good amount of synergy in coming up with a project.” 

PermaPak, created as an alternative to single-use plastic food packaging, is a “minimally processed biopolymer made from mycelial chitosan and sericin, a protein found in the cocoon of silkworms.” The packaging is cruelty-free, biodegradable, and designed to fit into a regenerative life cycle. PermaPak has the potential to eliminate and replace food packaging made out of plastic, such as Saran Wrap and Ziplock bags.

“It’s encouraging that numerous outlets are searching for the most ethical replacement for single-use plastics. This momentum is the critical mass we need.”

“The uncomfortable reality is that most of our plastic waste does not have a reusable life cycle and ends up as a permanent blight in landfills and as microplastics,” Xi and Selmić wrote in their product description. Throughout PermaPak’s creation process, Selmić and Xi collaborated with and consulted members of Northwestern University’s Center for Synthetic Biology as well as University of Illinois Chicago civil and materials engineer Matthew Daly.

In ongoing control tests, the heat-sealed biopolymer packaging stacks up well against PermaPak’s main competitor, Saran Wrap. Its most impressive aspects, according to the group, are PermaPak’s strength and high-tear resistance. And, after being used for food packaging, PermaPak can be composted and used as plant fertilizer.

After presenting PermaPak to the Biodesign Challenge in June, Selmić and Xi won the Barilla Prize for Regenerative Living Ecosystems, a specialty prize that considered all 53 participating schools’ projects. The award, sponsored by the pasta company, is given to the team whose project imagines how biodesign can reimagine a healthier and more sustainable food system.

Grains and pasta in PermaPak on a white background

PermaPak. Images courtesy of Selmić and Xi

PermaPak. Images courtesy of Selmić and Xi

“It was pretty exciting because they did tell us before the competition that we were one of two finalists for the prize,” said Selmić. “And now, The Biodesign organization has connected us with Barilla’s Blue1877 Sustainability Initiative to circulate our design research.”

So, with the endless potential for sustainable packaging, what is the future of PermaPak?

Selmić and Xi are still in the early stages of exploration with Barilla and are hoping to expand PermaPak’s positive impact on the environment. The group is currently entering design competitions centered around materials, such as the James Dyson Award and the Tom Ford Plastic Innovation Prize. They were also selected as finalists for the University Startup World Cup by Venture Cup Denmark. 

“We want to be able to continue bringing it out there,” said Selmić. “It’s encouraging that numerous outlets are searching for the most ethical replacement for single-use plastics. This momentum is the critical mass we need.” ■