Food packaging is one of the main generators of packaging waste in developed countries. In 2012, each person in the European Union (EU) countries generated an average of 156.8kg of packaging waste, and plastic containers accounted for 19 percent of it. In total, 15.1 million tons of plastic packaging waste was generated. Of course, many organizations are working on cutting back this waste, and new materials are under development, including biodegradable bioplastics made from renewable materials or even waste.
For example, Italian biotech firm Bio-on has created first-of-its-kind, naturally biodegradable containers made of a combination of paper and bioplastic in collaboration with Tampere University of Technology Finland. The company says that the containers developed as part of the “Minerv PHA Extrusion Coating” project are also recyclable and safe for food and biomedical applications.
The packaging is based on Bio-on’s 100 percent biodegradable bioplastic called polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA), made from agricultural processing waste materials. PHA has numerous applications, from replacing plastics in electronics to biodegradable microbeads. For the new containers, the researchers used it to replace the polyethylene in current packaging, maintaining all of its impermeability.
The company claims that this is the first time that a fully biodegradable formulation has been used to make laminates with paper without using films, instead fusing the biopolymer directly onto the paper using an extrusion process. The result is a recyclable container that maintains the functionality and aesthetic of the conventional version, with the added benefits of renewable material origins and natural biodegradability.
“It is a great scientific challenge to be able to create new products with an eco-sustainable and completely natural material,” said Prof. Jurkka Kuusipalo of Tampere University of Technology Finland, who worked with Bio-on on the Minerv PHA Extrusion Coating project. “I have been analysing and testing all the plastics bonded to paper and cardboard for over 20 years. The high interest that the packaging sector is enjoying gives us new goals for a totally eco-sustainable “tomorrow.” The PHAs made by Bio-on is very versatile and enables us to achieve performances never seen before. Being able to do this with completely natural products will put us at the cutting-edge of research and development in the coming decades.”
Bio-on Chairman Marco Astorri said they decided to work with Tampere University of Technology Finland because its researchers are “very oriented towards industrial production,” and have “made the highest number of technological developments in the history of food packaging in the food & beverage sector.”
Meanwhile, juice makers could soon use some of the wastewater to create the bottles for their products. A prototype bottle has been made with a polymer called polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB), produced by microbial fermentation of the sugars in juice industry wastewater as part of the EU-funded PHBOTTLE research and development (R&D) project.
Bioplastic PHB is already available in the market, but this is the first time that it has been made using fruit juice wastewater. Another type of food industry waste was also used to improve the strength and other mechanical properties of the material: Cellulose fibers were produced from rice hulls to increase rigidity.
In addition, microencapsulation technology was used in the PHBOTTLE prototype to create an “active packaging” whereby antioxidants such as limonene, an active compound present in orange peels, are slowly released to delay the oxidation of the juice in the bottle and extend its shelf-life.
The bottle is also biodegradable and compostable. The researchers say that their tests showed a 60 percent degradation over a period of 9 weeks, compared to an average of 100 years for a conventional petroleum-derived plastic container, and that the PHBOTTLEs can also be decomposed in composting plants.
The researchers note that the project represents “an innovative and sustainable response to the needs of the juice industry,” and provides “a solution for the future based on the circular economy.” Indeed, the new polymer allows “waste” by-products to become feedstocks, reducing the life cycle impact of the product and benefiting the company’s wider waste management and environmental initiatives.