Receive our editor’s picks

Lobster wrappers and wastewater-based bottles – taking recycling to the next level

Chitin, found in lobster, shrimp and crab shells, is being turned into plastic film and containers. Image: Shutterstock/BW Folsom
Chitin, found in lobster, shrimp and crab shells, is being turned into plastic film and containers. Image: Shutterstock/BW Folsom

Discarded food and wastewater could become raw materials for drinks bottles and food wrappers thanks to technology that can turn them into bio-based plastics.

The European Union produces a staggering 100 million tonnes of food waste and 47 million tonnes of food packaging waste per year, but the technology can help ease both problems at once.

A team of researchers has worked out a way to ferment waste water from fruit juice processing plants to make a type of plastic that can be used for bottles.

The plastic, known as PHB, is biodegradable and is made naturally by some types of bacteria. Researchers at the EU-funded PHBOTTLE project have found the best way to feed the bacteria with the sugar-rich fruit juice waste.

‘The main objective of the PHBOTTLE project is to develop a new bottle made from biodegradable material,’ said Lurdes Soares, technical and scientific affairs manager for the European Fruit Juice Association, a partner on the project.

The issue now is for researchers to work out how to do it cheaply enough that it can compete with current plastics that are made using oil.

‘The future inevitably lies in improving and optimizing PHB bio-production at an industrial scale so that the process is cost-efficient,’ said Soares.

EU Member States are committed to reducing food waste by 30 % by 2025, and using food waste to make packaging could make a good contribution to this, including whey, a by-product of cheese manufacturing.

Article continues below image

Plastic made from whey can help keep food fresher for longer. Image: WheyLayer II

Each year, 50 million tonnes of whey are produced in Europe, of which half is unprocessed. To help cut back on the amount of whey, which can be toxic to the environment, researchers at the EU-funded WheyLayer project have developed a whey protein-based plastic for use in food packaging.

And the product they have made is good enough to be used as an oxygen barrier, keeping food fresher for longer. That’s important because oxygen-proof coatings are usually expensive to make.

They’re now making multi-layered packaging that can be recycled as part of the follow-up WheyLayer II project.

Lobster chocolate wrappers

Chocolate bar wrappers made from lobster and crab shells could present another way to tackle Europe’s food waste problem, thanks to another group of researchers.

‘The main objective of the PHBOTTLE project is to develop a new bottle made from biodegradable material.’

Lurdes Soares, European Fruit Juice Association

The EU-funded n-chitopack project is trying to put some of the 250 million tonnes of chitin waste – made primarily from lobster, crab and shrimp shells – to good use.

The chemical structure of the ‘needle-like’ chitin nanocrystals makes them naturally resistant to bacterial growth, an important property in food packaging. Using technology developed by MAVI, a cosmetics company participating in the project, the researchers have developed a chitin-based transparent film suitable for packaging sandwiches and chocolate bars.

They’ve already developed hard food containers, and now they’re testing the film coating for use with fresh fish. While the oil-based plastic films currently in use can leave potentially toxic products on the fish, anything transferred to the fish from the chitin-based film can be harmlessly digested by humans.

‘In all the containers produced, chitin nanocrystals had the goal to give more resistance to the obtained biocomposites enriching their antiseptic activity,’ said project coordinator Professor Pierfrancesco Morganti, who is R&D director at MAVI.

The project will now look at other areas in which chitin-based biopolymers could be used, such as pharmaceutical and cosmetic packaging and air filters. 

Expo Milano

PHBOTTLE, WheyLayer II and n-chitopack are part of a display at the EU’s pavilion during the Expo Milano 2015 world fair, which runs until October 31.

For more about the EU pavilion at Expo Milano visit: http://europa.eu/expo2015/

More info