It’s a Wrap

By Catherine
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Written by Catherine Bolgar


Whether you like them or not, eggs, cheese, mushrooms or shrimp are likely to be part of your future shopping basket—as the raw materials in a new kind of plastic packaging.

New materials promise not only to reduce our reliance on petroleum products such as plastic, they also cut waste. Packaging accounted for more than 75 million tons (or 30%) of solid waste in the U.S. in 2013, while the European Union generates around 79 million tons of packaging waste annually.

However, waste from the agriculture industry is now being turned into biodegradable packaging materials. For example, Kirsi S. Mikkonen, a researcher at the University of Helsinki, is developing packaging films made from hemicelluloses, byproducts of the forestry industry and agriculture.

Cellulose, the part used by industry, makes up only 40% to 50% of wood, while hemicellulose and lignin each account for about 30%. Hemicelluloses can be retrieved from wood chips or, in thermo-mechanical mills, from wastewater.

Dr. Mikkonen converts the hemicelluloses into films that act as an effective barrier against oxygen. Edible films could protect food from drying out or spoiling, or even within food, to separate pizza crust from sauce. By coating paperboard with the films, she can make plastic-type containers.

Hemicelluloses and lignin can also be used in aerogels, which are porous and light but strong.

“When you put an aerogel in water, it acts like a sponge,” Dr. Mikkonen says. “It absorbs water and you can press it out, and it recovers its shape. We could make something like a soft pillow that could absorb moisture or drips from meat, or it could release active compounds and be used as active packaging.”

Innovations in active packaging abound. The Fraunhofer Research Institution for Modular Solid State Technologies in Munich has developed a sensor film that detects molecules called amines that are released when meat or fish starts to spoil. As amines build up, the sensors turn from yellow to blue, indicating the level of spoilage. Many companies now sell labels and films that keep fruits and vegetables fresh by absorbing ethlyene.

Egg whites could provide another form of active packaging. Alexander Jones, a researcher at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia, mixed the egg-white protein albumin with glycerol to create a plastic with antibacterial properties.

Albumin plastic could be used for food packaging, to decrease spoilage. It could also be mixed with conventional plastic to add antibacterial properties to medical products, says Suraj Sharma, associate professor at the University of Georgia’s College of Family and Consumer Sciences.

Another reason to mix in conventional plastic is that albumin plastic is too brittle to be used alone for, say, a catheter tube, which needs flexibility, Dr. Jones says.

He also tested plastics made from soy and whey proteins. Soy proteins had no antibacterial properties—“it actually fed bacteria,” he says. Whey proteins mixed with glycerol made antibacterial plastic, but whey plastic minus glycerol acted like soy-based plastic, promoting bacteria growth.

The protein-based plastics have other advantages. They compost quickly, and the manufacturing process uses lower temperatures than for petroleum-based plastics, thereby saving energy. Whey, a byproduct of cheese processing, requires treatment before disposal, so diverting it into plastics would be a boon.

For now, egg whites are far more expensive than polyethelyne. But Dr. Jones believes that we might tap waste streams to get cheaper raw materials.

Egg producers have eggs they don’t ship for various reasons,” Dr. Jones says. Using those “would reduce waste and also not compete with food as an end use.”

Shrimp shells are another waste source that can be turned into plastic. Harvard University researchers have turned chitin, a polysaccharide found in crustacean shells, into a strong, transparent material called shrilk, which can be used to make plastic bags, packaging and even diapers.

Meanwhile, Ecovative, a packaging company in Green Island, N.Y., uses mushrooms as the key ingredient in its compostable packaging. The root structure of a mushroom, called mycelium, acts like a glue. A mix of mycelium and agricultural byproducts is molded into different shapes, replacing styrofoam for example.

Packaging today is essential for society to function,” Dr. Mikkonen says. “We need packaging to deliver food from the maker to the retailer and then to the consumer. But it produces lots of waste. It’s really important to develop some biodegradable alternatives.”

 

Catherine Bolgar is a former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe. For more from Catherine Bolgar, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join the Future Realities discussion.

Photos courtesy of iStock

Sustainability Series blog post: Packing Things Up

By Christina
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The Great Pacific Garbage Patch” might sound like a horror story but, unfortunately, it is very real:  a giant collection of marine debris in the waters between North America and Japan that is primarily made up of plastic.  In addition to polluting ocean waters, this collection of bags, caps, bottles and cups is detrimental to marine life, which mistakes plastic items for food and consumes them, only to die from complications.  According to a study published in the journal Science in February 2015, 8 million tons of plastic packaging are deposited into oceans annually.

In order to help solve this problem, many companies are now turning to new biomaterials, smarter manufacturing methods and other end-of-life alternatives to reduce the environmental impact of their plastic packaging throughout its lifecycle.

A number of multi-national food and beverage brands and packaging manufacturers have launched or integrated bioplastic products into their portfolios. Bioplastics are derived from renewable biomass sources including vegetable fats, corn starch and agricultural byproducts.  A study by European Bioplastics predicts that bioplastics production capacity will increase by 400 percent, from 1.6 million tons in 2013 to around 6.7 million tons by 2018.

Packaging companies are also using new manufacturing techniques to optimize packaging design and reduce their use of virgin materials. For example, Amcor used 3D virtual design, finite element analysis, collaborative innovation and workflow management to remove more than 12,000 tons of plastic resin from its bottles.  MWV used lightweighting techniques to remove 18 percent of the plastic from medication packets made for a superstore.

IFWE Dassault Systèmes BrandingCompanies are also taking into account how the raw materials are sourced, transported, manufactured and disposed of.  A cradle-to-cradle (C2C) approach, designed to mimic natural processes, ensures that products contain materials that can be reused or recovered at their highest possible value multiple times after their first use.

Other recent innovations have included edible containers and biodegradable coffee cups that are embedded with seeds and can be buried after use.  In the U.S. alone, coffee “to go” is a daily staple, with an estimated 6 million cups of coffee sold in shops each day—think of the possibilities!KFC image (Image credit KFC via The New York Times)

For more details on how the CPGR industry is transforming packaging, read the full COMPASS article “Responsible packaging:  Producing reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging is a key goal for many companies”.

Augmented Reality Goes Postal

By Kate
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Is Augmented Reality going mainstream? Now instead of having to wait in line at the US Post Office to see which Priority Mail Flat Rate Box you need, you can figure it out ahead of time, at home or work with a printed AR tag, your webcam and computer.

I don’t live in the US right now, so will someone please tell me: what’s the advantage of doing this, other than because it’s cool?

Here’s the official “how to” video:

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I tried leaving a comment on the USPS’ blog, but it kept thinking I was a bot. Hmmmm.

Best,

Kate



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