What solutions are companies using to beat plastic packaging?

Unusual food by-products, plant matter and new technology are making this area a hotbed of innovation.

16 April 2019
food wasteplasticsustainabilitytechnology

New materials are emerging as ways to tackle the plastic problem, made from everything from leftover plant pulp to the shells of marine animals.

Researchers from the Queensland University of Technology in Australia, for example, are currently engaged in a three-month trial to prove the economic viability of turning sugarcane into base matter for things like plastic bottles. A new technique has been developed to take the fibre leftover from processed sugarcane, known as bagasse, and transform it into a material that could replace the much-relied-upon PET with a successor called PEF.

Not only is PEF lighter and stronger than PET, but it also has better barriers for oxygen and other gases, marking it as a good replacement for bottles and plastics.

The food waste from sugarcane is not the only by-product in the picture either. Biotech company Cuan Tec is using leftover langoustine shells to make a natural polymer to create a flexible film. Waitrose is hoping to use this new film as an alternative to the plastic on its fish products in 12 to 18 months time.

Packaging pressures

Never has consumer desire been greater for plastic-free products. Sales of loose fruit and vegetables are growing twice as quickly as those wrapped in plastic, as shoppers opt for more sustainable options, recent figures from Kantar show.

Some 21% of fruit, veg and salad were sold loose during the 12 weeks to 24 March, which was an increase of 6% on the previous quarter.

“Consumers are applying pressure on the retailers when it comes to packaging and making their feelings known in the fruit and vegetable aisles,” said Fraser McKevitt, consumer head of retail and consumer insight at Kantar.

With the pressure piled on, companies like Breakdown Plastic could offer a good short-term solution in areas where plastic can’t be completely ditched.

The company introduces an organic additive to the injection mould process that accelerates the biodegradation process of plastic in biologically active landfills. Just 1% of the additive is needed for it to take effect, regardless if it’s being utilised in plastic bags or food packaging.

With 79% of the world’s plastic ending up in landfills, this technology is addressing a key problem, according to Peter Rooke, CEO and founder of brand agency Art and Science International.

“The development and use of Breakdown Plastic at least tackles one of the issues – the end of the life of the product – so if it does end up in the landfill it will actually biodegrade, which it currently doesn’t,” he told an Ingredients Show audience. “It will sit in the ground for 500 years and create toxic waste.”

However, even landfill isn’t necessary for Breakdown Plastic’s products to work. It can be added to any plastic to ensure that it degrades when in an environment of no air or sunlight. The company is also looking to develop the technology so that it will breakdown plastic in the ocean.

Podpak is one company using Breakdown Plastic’s technology, notably in the packaging it makes for meal box brand Hello Fresh. The managing director of Podpak, Nick Earl, said while there was a slight increase in cost, he was eager to switch to a material that would help rectify a major environmental issue.

Drink it in

Even drinks manufacturers have turned their hands to the problem.

Nestlé rolled out Nesquick All Natural in Europe in an innovative new paper packaging material that is plastic-free and fully recyclable.

“Packaging in this particular space is quite fragile, it doesn’t hold well in factory environment, it doesn’t travel well in the supply chain,” Nestlé senior packaging specialist Sarah Divanbeigi told Food Spark’s sister site Food Navigator.

“In order to address these challenges, papers are usually laminated with a plastic layer. For the Nesquick All Natural range, instead of using a laminate we used a coated paper. It is a ‘food contact approved’ grade and it protects the product but is still recyclable in the paper stream.”

The company had to strike a balance between developing a material that was fully recyclable in the paper stream and protecting the product, added Divanbeigi, who says extensive tests were carried out to ensure the paper pouch performed adequately in storage and transportation. Nestlé was also looking at how it could apply this tech to other products in the future.

Elsewhere, a number of companies are pushing out innovations in the coffee space.

Percol released a plastic-free coffee bag made from 100% plant-based material called polylactic acid. It has a neutral odour and taste and is industrially compostable, taking 12 weeks to break down. Last year, it also launched plastic-free pouches for its ground coffee and beans, made from renewable materials like plant fibres and eucalyptus wood pulp.

Then there’s London start-up The Hashtag Company, which debuted a hemp-infused coffee capsule, made from bio-matter derived from cereal plants. It said the capsules were 100% biodegradable and could be industrially composted, completely breaking down within 180 days.

Additionally, Kent coffee roastery Lost Sheep Coffee made the move into grocery with a range of eco-friendly pods constituted from waste wood bark from the paper industry, combined with naturally occurring plant-based proteins, starches and glucose. They can be composted domestically and will break down within 18 months.

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