The fermentation process used to brew kombucha yields a “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast” — Scoby for short — that’s actually a living film on top of the liquid, like a mushroom cap. To Polish designer Roza Janusz, Scoby was an inspiration to develop a material that could close the loop on the world’s single-use plastic packaging problem.
Hundreds of millions of tons of plastic are produced each year, much of which is created for single use. The impact of discarded plastic on the environment has been catastrophic: It can take hundreds of years to degrade, if it degrades at all; clogs oceans and rivers; and breaks down into microplastics, which make their way into food and our own bodies. The rising global awareness of the damage plastic is causing has created an opportunity for Janusz’s ingenious alternative to thrive.
While Janusz was a student at the School of Form in Poznań, Poland, she developed a method to turn Scobys into usable, edible packaging for dry or semi-dry food. Her packaging prototypes were created by making kombucha: allowing bacteria to eat the available sugars in a liquid, producing strands of insoluble cellulose as a byproduct. Over time, the Scoby grows into a waxy, pancake-like membrane atop the liquid, protecting the kombucha underneath.
When Janusz realized that the traditional pint-size kombucha method was unsuitable for scaling up, she began to look for alternatives. In 2018, she founded the biodesign studio MakeGrowLab with environmental scientist Josh Brito, initially to research the qualities of her material. But as they worked, she says, “we saw the huge need for a commercial development of Scoby.”
Scoby packaging material is neither plastic nor bioplastic, it’s pure cellulose.
After a lot of trial and error, Janusz finalized her scalable, film-like membrane by adding vegetable-based agricultural waste to the bacteria and yeast. This improved the fermentation process, while also ensuring her product was zero-waste.
“We had to find a solution to keep the material home-compostable but make it scalable,” says Janusz.