Over the last years I have written a whole series of articles about developments that led to alternative packaging materials, in other words other than the well-known traditional plastics, glass, paper and metal.
Apart from the advancements in packaging material itself, we have seen quite some strides in transitions from glass to plastic, and even to paperboard. When we remember the tentative replacement of the milk bottle into a paperboard bottle, some years ago, and the consequently further advancement in this area to several non-food products and ending into the paperboard wine bottle, we shouldn’t be surprised when Carlsberg announcement last year that they started a serious development program for a paperboard beer bottle, will pop-up one of these days with a suitable result.
On top of the replacement of plastic and glass bottles by paperboard bottles, there is lot of interesting development going on in the paper and paperboard area for all types of packaging formats. This whole advancement in paperboard and/or fibreboard made from and out of other than wood chips, I will describe in a separate article later.
This article I want to use to highlight recent developments in out-of-the-ordinary, non-traditional and mainly natural packaging materials, which see a revolutionary and sometimes even unexpected growth in new applications. In all aspects of packaging material (plastics and paper) agriculture waste is growing in importance as renewable resource turned into packaging.
Let’s start with some scientific developments and finish this part with the natural material a creative designer used for a nostalgic food product.
Wastewater-Based Juice Packaging
Every single year packaging waste across the EU exceeds 67 million tonnes in weight. This represents approximately 30% of the union’s entire annual urban solid waste output. On the wider global waste scale, food packaging has a reported 60% share of all packaging, making it the foremost public-produced waste source.
At the same time, the production of fruit juice consumes large quantities of water. It’s used to wash pre-juice fruit and to clean equipment. Consequently, the manufacturing of orange, apple, lemon or whatever juice results in millions of litres of wastewater each year.
Wastewater treatment for the food industry is a costly process due to the energy needed in the aeration basin and the cost of waste sludge disposal. Recovering valuable materials from raw wastewater will therefore reduce treatment and disposal costs. On top of that, the use of biodegradable food packaging material will reduce energy use and carbon dioxide emissions, as well as reducing waste treatment costs.
These two exceptionally high waste levels initiated the new PHBottle technology. After some four years of research, carried out by AINIA in Spain, the first prototype PHBottle packaging, incorporating bioplastic sourced from wastewater, has recently been unveiled.
“Progress has been made possible by combining the latest advances in biotechnology, packaging and microencapsulation technologies, to demonstrate the value of organic waste from the juice industries as raw material to produce packaging for their products”, Spanish technology centre AINIA explains.
The prototype PHBottle packaging was obtained from the transformation of organic matter (mainly fermentable sugars such as glucose, fructose and maltose) present in the wastewater of the juice industry into a bioplastic material (PHB polyhydroxybutyrate). The concentration of fermentable sugars in juice processing wastewater can reach 70% of the total organic load, containing almost 20 g/l of fermentable sugars, and making it an abundant source of cheap feedstock for PHB bio-production. This material was enhanced with antioxidants to increase the shelf life of the juice, as well as its resistance characteristic.
Earlier this year the PHBottle prototypes were exhibited at an event co-hosted by AINIA, alongside AIJN (the European Fruit Juice Association).
Dr Ana Valera, PHBottle project coordinator, said at this event: “Our innovative packaging contributes to reducing the damage caused by conventional plastic materials. It is environmentally friendly not only due to its natural origin (and not based on petroleum products) but also by the fact that the packaging production contributes to a decrease in the environmental impact of wastewater management in the juice industry”.
With AINIA spearheading the whole project, other PHBottle participants besides the European Fruit Juice Association included Portugal’s Logoplaste Innovation Lab, Brazil’s Logoplaste, Belgium’s Omniform, Bulgaria’s Sivel Ltd and Mexico’s Mega Empack. Also involved were several technology centres including TNO, Aimplas and INTI, representing the Netherlands, Spain and Argentina respectively and making this wastewater-sourced fruit juice packaging work a truly multinational effort.
In the initial phase of the process to create a PHBottle, microorganisms capable of converting organic residues from waste water into a biodegradable polymeric material (plastic), the PHB (polyhydroxybutyrate), are identified.
Once this material is obtained, its properties will be improved in a second phase of the project, with the incorporation of cellulose fibres and ingredients encapsulated with antioxidant properties. The aim is that the product obtained, when containing a food, is able to lengthen the life of the food and therefore increase its marketing and consumption window.
In a third phase, this material (after strengthening and improvement of its properties) will be molded and then used to produce bottles of juice. Finally, these bottles will be validated and tested, by filling them with fruit juice from the same industry that generates the wastewater. This closes the cycle: the waste generator becomes the beneficiary of the new packaging, tailored to the need of its product.
With the concept of the ‘Circular Economy’ currently being a major policy issue at EU-level, the PHBottle project has made an important contribution to the growth of ‘green chemistry’ solutions for developing products and processes that reduce environmental impacts and reduces society’s dependence on petroleum-based products.
The PHBottle project is typically a project that falls within the revised EU waste legislation, which lays out the legal measures needed for a paradigm shift from a linear to a circular economy where waste is considered a valuable resource, and the transformation to a low-carbon bio-economy, which uses resources more efficiently.
Let’s have a look at another one of these scientific developments.
Eggshells crack a flexible film conundrum
Researchers at Tuskegee University in Alabama cracked one of the problems of making bio-compostable films by using eggshells as a sustainable filler/reinforcement in bio-resins. They incorporated nanoparticles from waste eggshells into plastic film made of bioplastic to create a material that is wholly sustainable.
“These nano-sized eggshell particles add strength to the material and make them far more flexible than other bioplastics on the market,” said Rangari. “We believe that these traits – along with its biodegradability in the soil – could make this eggshell plastic a very attractive alternative packaging material.”
Dr. Vijaya Rangari, the leader of the research team, explains that his group crushed chicken eggshells and then used a combination of ultrasound and chemicals to make tiny particles about 10 nanometers or smaller in size. The resultant calcium carbonate nanoparticles had a very high surface area and were porous, boosting the mechanical and thermal properties of the composite.
A small amount of residual protein present on the eggshell particles significantly improved bonding of the particles to the base resin, which can be polylactic acid or other naturally-sourced polymers.
The research team produced a bio-composite that is 700% more flexible than other bioplastic blends. Film made of the new material could be used in retail packaging, grocery bags and food containers.
Calcium carbonate derived from mineral sources has long been used as a filler in plastics, but the Tuskegee research shows a biological, sustainable waste stream could be tapped as a carbonate source. Other applications for the eggshell nanoparticles are being explored for wound healing, drug delivery and bone regeneration.
Let’s move to a, let’s call it, semi-scientific solution.
Saltwater Brewery’s edible six-pack rings
Saltwater Brewery partnered with the advertising agency We Believers to launch the first 100% bio-degradable edible six-pack rings for beer. Well, a bio-degradable packaging isn’t, in general, big news, but in this case it’s edible, but with a twist.
The packaging is made from barley and wheat ribbons spent grain from the brewing process and represents a new approach to sustainable beer packaging.
We Believers worked with engineers at Entelequia Inc., a small start-up in Mexico, to produce the six-pack rings. And here is the twist, the six-pack rings are safe for wildlife to eat, and sturdy enough to support the weight and handling of the cans.
Saltwater Brewery, said it is understandably more expensive to produce, but many customers are willing to pay the difference knowing it’s better for the environment and animal life. In contrast of this statement the advertising agency We Believers in New York claims that if craft breweries and big beer companies implement the technology, the manufacturing costs will drop compared to plastic alternatives.
Although a promising development, I’m a bit afraid that the claim of edibility of the packaging might promote the “throw-away-into-nature” attitude of many consumers enjoying their six-pack in the outdoors. Despite the disadvantage it is an interesting development that certainly requires more attention to grow out into something substantial.
The last item of this article is the result of a free-thinking designer, a student of the Ecv Provence (Creative Schools & Community) in Aix-en-Provence/France.
Saucisson de Campagne
I’m always amazed that apparently schools of design don’t teach their students to describe and explain their concoctions. They forget that after graduation they have to “sell” their ideas to the world and, like it or not, that requires some verbal experience and sometimes even poetic capability. But it is like always, like this one, a result of an eco-design course at the ECV Aix-en-Provence led by Prof. Sylvain Allard.
Anyway, as a result of the above-mentioned eco-design workshop, the (student)designer Julien Suzanne created a natural solution to properly package Saucisson de Campagne (country sausages), as he used compressed hay, claiming that is the best way to conserve this type of sausage.
That’s all the information the designer-in-spe and his teacher see fit to supply you with, except for some images.
In my next article about Emerging Non-Traditional Packaging Materials we will see recent developments in paper and paperboard, but not made from wood chips or pulp, but from several other agricultural residues.