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Sustainable food packaging from washed-up seagrass, plant waste, cellulose composites

Sustainable food packaging from washed-up seagrass, plant waste, cellulose composites

03-Apr-17

Growing urbanization is leading to lifestyles that are getting faster and busier, ultimately leading to more ready-to-eat meals, pre-cut meats, fruits and vegetables, single serve beverages and snacks. This has led to increasing innovations and advancements in food packing technology that is easy to open, dispense, handle, consume, reseal. However growing environmental concerns and government legislations are leading to more sustainable and biodegradable packaging alternatives.

A sustainable alternative to plastic food packaging using washed-up seagrass has been created by Royal College of Art graduate Felix Pöttinger. The dried seagrass fibre is bound together using a cellulose-based extract from the plant. Once mixed, the seagrass is pressed into a metal mould and baked until completely dry. The German designer, who created the POC packaging as part of his Design Products masters, claims the material is not only completely biodegradable but has antibacterial properties that help keep dry food fresh. He hopes POC will reduce both food and plastic packaging waste. He says, "It's a natural waste material, and past research showed that it is highly resistant against mould. I am only using the dead seagrass fibres that appear on the beaches of the Mediterranean coast, so there is no industrial harvesting process to harm the population of the seagrass or any living being."
Pöttinger believes that the bio-composite material could be easily integrated into the industrial process, and has made prototype POC containers based on the shape of existing packaging. He worked with Tesco and the Microsoft Research centre on the project, to better understand large-scale food supply chains and the possibilities of technology. The designer also tested the composite in materials labs for its antibacterial and structural qualities. Pöttinger now plans to set up a materials-based company, which will investigate the possibilities for POC, and continue testing it to ensure the material can meet EU food packaging regulations.

Bio-Lutions produces biodegradable packaging and disposable tableware from plant waste, for instance bananas, pineapples or tomatoes. First the plants are dried and then mechanically pulped into micro- or nanofibers. When these fibers are mixed with water, it can be processed in various forms without the need for additional chemical binders. It can be shaped into packaging and disposables. This method, developed by Bio-Lutions, has only been tested in a pilot. In Bangalore, in the Indian state of Karnataka, a major industrial plant will be built for the almost CO2-neutral production of packaging and disposables. The Bangalore region is very fertile and achieves four harvests per year. This means abundant plant waste so additional production of plants is not necessary. Bio-Lutions will work together with cooperatives of small farmers who supply the material for the production and so generate additional income.  An Indian online supermarket is already a customer. Bio-Lutions aims to offer its products in Europe within a few years. “After a constructive and accurate review, without bureaucracy, of our business plan and innovation, we are now supported by DEG in the Up-Scaling program,” says Eduardo Gordillo, Managing Director of Bio-Lutions. With the Up-Scaling program DEG promotes start-up investments in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). This way enterprises can expand their innovative business models, especially models that generate positive effects on development. Together DEG and the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development will provide 4.5 million Euros for the program in 2017.

A new biodegradable packaging is not only beneficial to the environment but also helps keep fruits and vegetables fresh longer. Researchers from Kaunas University of Technology (KTU) are examining a way to produce food packaging from cellulose composites that would not turn to waste but rather degrade into a fertilizer. The film used is enriched with silver that inhibits the growth of microorganisms and its antimicrobial properties remain active for a long period of time. This new development would assist in cutting down on packaging waste, while also reducing the number of food-borne illnesses. Enriching the packaging material with active components will help maintain freshness of food for longer.
Vesta Navikaitė-Snipaitienė, a chemical engineering Ph.D. student at KTU and one of the research team members, explained that by testing the efficiency of various ethereal oils when added to the cellulose-based film they could produce a better packaging. "Active components of clove ethereal oil are very effective in tying free radicals; this oil proved efficient in enriching packaging with anti-oxidizing qualities. This effect helps to keep food fresh for longer but such a package is not antimicrobial," Navikaitė-Snipaitienė said in a statement. Danilovas explained how silver is used to render the antimicrobial effect. "To achieve antimicrobial effect, we added ionic silver particles to the cellulose based packaging,” Danilovas said. “The results we achieved were quite unexpected -- the silver particles made the packaging film more elastic and stronger.”  The modified cellulose packaging, which is being tested in a Lithuanian enterprise, degrades in nature in around two years.

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