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Foldable plastic condiment containers

Biodegradable and recyclable foil-less condiment containers as a replacement for single-use sachets and tear-offs

Photo of Joshua Morales
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Condiments in the United States typically come in the form of single-use sachets and small plastic containers with foil tear-off lids. While convenient and hygienic, their small size and material composition usually mean they get disposed of instead of being recycled, which poses a significant burden on the environment since they are not easily biodegradable. Additionally, the foil lids and torn-off sachet corners further reduce the waste size, making them messy and more likely to not even make it into a trash receptacle at all.

The concept presented here is based on a condiment container popular in Japan called the Dispen Pak. It features a plastic portion pack with two reservoirs or compartments (can be used for one or more different condiments). When the rigid top is folded in half, the two compartments are squeezed together, dispensing the condiment through a hole formed along the fold. It is easy to use (with one hand), very user friendly (easy to control the dispensing), clean (no mess), and allows for easy creation of fun designs and decorations. Additionally, due to the design, there is a higher likelihood that the packets can be completely emptied. The design has been wildly successful in Japan, but its use has not significantly spread abroad.

While the current Dispen Pak material is recyclable, user behavior typically means that such packaging is disposed of. Thus, if a bio-based and biodegradable material such as PLA or PHA is used, their environmental impact can be minimized. Therefore, we propose to create a similar condiment container using more environmentally friendly materials that would facilitate in-store recycling as well as minimize the environmental impact should the container be disposed of in the trash.

Development plan

The product has been around for nearly three decades in Japan and has experienced wide market implementation and consumer acceptance there. The patent for the container expired approximately 10 years ago, which enables the technology to be further developed, manufactured, and marketed freely. However, we do intend to try and work directly with the company that currently produces the containers in order to bring them to the United States and elsewhere.

The utilization of an existing, successful product that is currently offered in a limited market presents an opportunity to partner with the manufacturer, drive change for more environmentally friendly materials, and expand the market of the improved product across the globe. By partnering with the manufacturer, we can significantly reduce technological risk and development cost by leverage existing manufacturing processes and product knowledge.

Geographical context

We chose to address Puerto Rico as our region for several reasons. First and foremost, our company, Isla Innovations, has roots in Puerto Rico. As an island, we have limited resources, and the environmental impact of our linear economy is more apparent and its implications are more imminent than in the Continental United States, where more space is available for waste, and raw materials and products can be trucked in (and waste trucked out) overnight. According to the EPA (Solid Waste in Puerto Rico, 2010), “Puerto Rico residents generate more waste than people living on the mainland, and recycling rates in the Commonwealth are lower. Much of Puerto Rico's solid waste ends up in one of island's 32 landfills, most of which do not comply with Commonwealth and federal landfill requirements.” Puerto Rico relies solely on municipality-controlled landfills for waste disposal, and with over 4 million tons of solid waste generated per year, waste has a significant impact on our economy, our environment, and our lives. In fact, in by 2020, it is expected that there will only be 4 landfills in operation (compared to 32 in 2010). In addition, low landfill tipping fees encourage irresponsible recycling and waste disposal habits, and the lack of appropriate funding streams for waste management infrastructure add to our long-term concerns. With a recycling rate of only 10% (in 2007), our waste management system is dire. (Autoridad de Desperdicious Solidos, Solid Waste Management in Puerto Rico: Realities, Facts and Figures, Feb. 2010).

With such a low participation rate in recycling, the design of products and services must be inherently sustainable until policy and system solutions can be developed to nudge people to adopt more sustainable habits. This is already happening in Cabo Rojo, where the Orange Initiative (Iniciativa Naranja) has been implemented to financially incentivize recycling. While the policies are developed across the island for better recycling habits, the products and services that people use need to also be redesigned around the ideas of a closed-loop system and zero-waste. It is for these reasons that developing more sustainable goods, such as this bio-based and biodegradable foil-less condiment container, will help contribute to Puerto Rico's adoption of circular economy principles.

Company / Organization Name

Isla Innovations


Where are you / your team located?

Washington, DC area and Puerto Rico

How does this Idea redesign unrecyclable small format plastic items that often end up as waste?

By eliminating tear-off lids and sachets and utilizing a more recyclable material, the container can be recycled in one piece, which eliminates a waste sorting issue. This demonstrates potential for a decrease in plastic waste, which could then be used for the manufacture of new containers or other products. Also, with a biodegradable plastic material, the environmental impact would be minimized should the container end up in the trash instead of being recycled.

Which use cases does your Idea apply to?

Case 1 (single-use sachets) and Case 2 (tear-offs)

In what geographical context or area does your Idea plan to operate / solve?

We chose to address Puerto Rico due to low recycling rates and limited waste management infrastructure. In addition, Isla Innovations has roots in Puerto Rico.

How do you envision scaling up your Idea?

Market penetration can be attained through a partnership with major fast food restaurant chains to increase product knowledge and create demand. We would also work with potential suppliers to introduce the technology into their production facilities for local manufacturing and distribution.

At what stage of development is your Idea?

  • Research & Early Testing: You are exploring an idea, gathering inspiration and information needed to test it with real users.
  • Prototyping: You have conducted some small tests or experiments with prospective users and will continue developing idea through these tests.

Please describe how becoming a Top Idea and working with the Think Beyond Plastics Accelerator Program will help to accelerate your solution.

Through the New Plastics Economy Accelerator Program, we’d validate the design against the circular economy model with experts in the field and identify ideal partnerships for local manufacturing and distribution. We intend to work with the current manufacturer to leverage their experience and product knowledge while driving materials and manufacturing to improve sustainability. Since the product is already proven in Japan, we would focus mainly on local production, marketing, and distribution.

Please describe from where your Idea emerged

This idea emerged due to the fact that one of our engineers lived in Japan and regularly used (and loves) the Dispen Pak.

Tell us about your work experience

Isla Innovations is an innovation firm comprised of experienced engineers, designers, and business professionals and specializes in sustainability guidance and technology research.

Please describe your legal and organizational structure

Isla Innovations is a worker-owned cooperative startup.

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Join the conversation:

Photo of Kate Rushton

Hi Joshua and team!

Really interesting idea!

What changes would be needed to the manufacturing procress/supply chain to implement this solution at scale?

Would you be able to tell me more about the prototyping work you have done?

Photo of Timothy Lee

Kate Rushton , thanks for your comments! With regards to prototyping, we were trying to capture the fact that the technology already exists and is proven in a local market (Japan) and not just a new concept, but there wasn't an appropriate choice for the development stage. However, we do have established networks of Americans, for example, that have lived or are living in Japan that we could leverage for feedback.

As for changes to manufacturing/supply chain, currently all manufacturing is done in Japan. We would like to work with the original manufacturer and leverage their experience to get things rolling, but eventually, we'd like to see more local manufacturing in the regions that the product will serve. This will likely require new tooling and/or modifications to existing equipment, but given that the construction is similar to that of existing tear-off containers, we hope to be able to convert existing tear-off production lines into production lines for these foldable containers. Our initial focus would be on the utilization of new materials that are both recyclable and compostable/biodegradable, which would allow the containers to accommodate current waste management behaviors but also adapt to new and innovative recycling efforts/technologies as they are developed and implemented.

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