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 plastic products in the world are used only once. After they enter the waste stream, these practically indestructible synthetic materials 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 waste stream 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.
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.
'A fully bio-based ready-meal package is vital to ensure that more sustainable products are fabricated in the packaging industry'
Steve Davey, Fresh, N. Ireland
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 food packaging 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 packaging industry,’ Davey said.
The research in this article has been supported by the EU. If you liked this article, please consider sharing it on social media.
The first ever European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy is an EU plan to transform how plastics are produced, consumed and recycled. The strategy is intended to support industry while contributing to sustainability goals and the fights against marine litter and climate change. Plastics play an important role in the economy and the strategy is designed to address the particular challenges of plastic production such as pollution and reuse.
Food waste, garden cuttings, manure, and even human sewage can be turned into solid biocoal for energy generation, and, if scaled up, could help match the industrial demand for carbon with the need to get rid of organic waste and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
New recycling technologies currently being tested may allow plastics such as single-use food packaging, fibre-reinforced car parts and mattress foam – polymers which often wind up in landfills or are incinerated – to have more than just a second life: they can become as good as new.
In our continuing search for other life in the universe, one place has always looked promising – Mars. It is a rocky planet like Earth, orbiting the same star, and at a distance where water could have been present on the planet.
Moving more goods by water could reduce pressure on roads and cut emissions, yet Europe’s shipping industry is held back by labour shortages. Automated shipping – which would work in a similar way to self-driving cars – could help expand capacity but safety and regulatory hurdles remain.
The red planet may be our best bet for finding out whether we’re alone in the universe.
Reducing crew numbers onboard ships could overcome labour shortages and increase shipping levels.
Metagenomics can help us spot emerging diseases such as coronavirus, says virologist Marion Koopmans.