Not so fantastic single-use plastic to get an eco-friendly makeover

May 8, 2018 by Rex Merrifield, From Horizon Magazine, Horizon: The EU Research & Innovation Magazine
A packaging film made from the milk protein casein is water-soluble and biodegradable. Credit: Lactips

Milk-based edible food packaging and ready-meal trays made from wood could help reduce the pervasiveness of single-use plastic, a major cause of environmental pollution adversely affecting wildlife, habitats and human health.

It may come as a shock to some, but around half of all the products in the world are used only once. After they enter the waste stream, these practically indestructible synthetic end up in landfill or oceans, persisting in the environment for hundreds of years.

Consumer awareness is growing, and improved recycling methods help to alleviate the problem. But while plastic packaging accounts for almost two-thirds of all plastics used in the EU, less than half of it is ever recycled.

Reducing the volumes of plastic entering the at source would be one very effective way to prevent pollution. To do this means developing alternative packaging made from biodegradable materials derived from organic sources such as wood pulp and waste milk.

These could be as versatile as synthetic plastics while being much more environmentally friendly, and be used for products ranging from dishwasher detergents and swimming pool chemicals to ready-made meals and even foodstuffs like cheese.

Milk-based

Through a project called Ecolactifilm, French company Lactips has developed a patented, milk-based thermoplastic packaging material that is biodegradable and water-soluble at low temperatures.

The packaging film is based on casein – a protein derived from milk – and breaks down harmlessly in water or home compost. It takes just three weeks to biodegrade, claims the company.

"It is a truly disruptive innovation, and we can now make what was previously not possible," said Jean-Antoine Rochette, chief financial officer of Lactips and the company's project officer for Ecolactifilm. Disruptive innovations are ones which have the potential to fundamentally change a market.

Forming a good oxygen barrier to help keep goods fresh, the material can readily be printed with labels or usage instructions. Proposed applications for Lactips' packaging include water treatment, agrochemicals, dishwasher capsules and even edible food packaging. "The main thing of interest (to industry) is that our product is fully water-soluble and fully water-soluble at cold temperatures," Rochette said.

Lactips, which is based near Lyon, only uses milk that is unfit for human consumption for its non-food applications. The material is produced as small plastic pellets called nurdles that, with some adjustments, can be used in existing plastic processing machinery. But because it can be formed at lower temperatures than oil-based plastics, the process also saves energy.

"We are bringing new opportunities to industry, because you use it for new applications, so it is innovative," said Rochette, "But you can manage the product with the same industrial processes, and do it at the same price."

By using leftover protein from milk that is suitable for human consumption, however, another potential application for Lactips is edible-grade food packaging. This makes for strong prospects in packaging cheese, a substantial industry in France and other parts of Europe. It also makes for a certain symmetry, where both the product and its edible wrapper are made from milk.

As awareness of plastic waste is growing, so too is the demand for more sustainable products. Responding to this, a project called Fresh is working to demonstrate that bio-based raw materials are a good alternative to ready-made food packaging and can biodegrade in compost after use.

Steve Davey, Fresh project manager at food packaging firm Huhtamaki's operation in Lurgan, Northern Ireland, said: '(We are) developing a product using a naturally based raw material, and applying the mechanics and engineering that we already have, in order to deliver something that is new and useful to the market."

If you have ever consumed a ready-made meal from a supermarket or delicatessen, you probably took delivery of your food in a black plastic tray. After a one-time use, the trays are discarded and although some of these containers are incinerated, others just end up in landfill.

The alternative packaging is based on Durapulp, which is a bio-composite developed from a wood fibre and a biopolymer from Fresh consortium partner Södra, of Sweden. Through the use of renewable raw materials, Durapulp is environmentally friendly and ready for mass production.

With headquarters in Finland, Huhtamaki researchers, led by Harald Kuiper in the Netherlands, have been working to create a tray that will cook the food safely and can handle the temperatures and humidity of a microwave or conventional oven.

Not content merely with materials that have much greener properties, the Fresh team is aiming for trays with a sustainable source, as well as strength and stability when heated during cooking, delivering functional improvements for the consumer.

While Fresh is focused on the ready-meal market, success could point to new areas for future exploration, such as takeaway, ready meals or even airline meals.

"A fully bio-based ready-meal package is vital to ensure that more sustainable products are fabricated in the industry," Davey said.

Explore further: Edible food packaging made from milk proteins

Related Stories

Edible food packaging made from milk proteins

August 21, 2016

At the grocery store, most foods—meats, breads, cheeses, snacks—come wrapped in plastic packaging. Not only does this create a lot of non-recyclable, non-biodegradable waste, but thin plastic films are not great at preventing ...

Biodegradable packages will keep your food fresh

March 10, 2017

KTU researchers are creating biodegradable food packaging materials, which, in addition, will also keep food fresh for longer. This innovation would solve two problems at once: assist in cutting down packaging waste and in ...

Recommended for you

Why bioelectrodes for energy conversion are not stable

May 25, 2018

Researchers at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum have discovered why bioelectrodes containing the photosynthesis protein complex photosystem I are not stable in the long term. Such electrodes could be useful for converting light ...

Simulations show how beta-amyloid may kill neural cells

May 25, 2018

Beta-amyloid peptides, protein fragments that form naturally in the brain and clump into plaques in Alzheimer's disease patients, are thought to be responsible for neuron death, but it hasn't been clear how the substances ...

The changing shape of DNA

May 24, 2018

The shape of DNA can be changed with a range of triggers including copper and oxygen—according to new research from the University of East Anglia.

2 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

deksman2
not rated yet May 08, 2018
Milk protein?
Sheesh... come on, you can do better than that.
First of all, a milk protein based plastic is based on animal exploitation (which incidentally contributes to massive amount of methane being released into the atmosphere and is in turn 10x more effective at trapping heat than C02).

With more and more people going vegan, why not focus on reducing need for plastics in the first place, or make edible/bio-degradeable ones entirely from plants?
Zzzzzzzz
not rated yet May 08, 2018
Low temp water solubility will invalidate this for most of the single use plastics reason for being.....

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.