The unusual materials that could create plastic-free packaging

Queen’s University Belfast is working with industry, including Waitrose, ABP Food Group and Aquascot, to bring new packaging to shelves.

6 March 2019
food wasteorganicpackagingplasticmanufacturesupermarkets
image credit: Getty Images

Non-edible food waste could be used to create new forms of packaging that reduce the reliance on plastics.

A new project led by Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) is looking to transform things like protein waste from poultry by-products and the casing from sausages, as well as plant waste from agriculture and forestry residue like sawdust, into packaging. The research recently won funding from the EIT Food consortium.

Industry partners will also be involved in the project, like beef, lamb and sausage providers ABP Food Group, seafood providers Aquascot and retailer Waitrose, while the university is hoping chicken specialists Moy Park will join as well.

Research co-lead, Dr Eoin Cunningham, says many of the waste products identified are natural polymers, which means they have a strong chance of being converted into packaging.

“The amount and variety of waste emanating from the agri-food industry is huge. It really is an untapped resource for this type of research. You’ve got everything from leaves, stalks and roots to materials like blood, feathers, carcasses and seed husks. Within those we know they contain the building blocks of alternative materials,” he explains to Food Spark.

“One interesting one I’ve been working on the last few years is feathers from the poultry industry. Feathers are essentially keratin, which is a natural polymer in itself, and if we can extract keratin and process it as a traditional polymer-type material, then we can replace petroleum-derived materials with waste-derived materials.”

An earlier research project by Dr Cunningham was funded by Moy Park and identified eight waste streams that the company was producing from the 6m birds it processes

Bio-based injection moulded cups

a week. It included egg shells, chicken litter and poultry litter ash from incinerating parts of the chicken that aren’t used.

“So from that we focused on egg shells, feathers and poultry litter ash, and we have created demonstrator products like sheet, film, injected moulded cups and injected moulded trays using these waste streams,” Dr Cunningham comments. “This isn’t blue sky – there is definitely potential in these materials.”

Keeping costs and consumers in the picture

The project could help play into the circular economy, while the funding comes at a time when there is a renewed focus on plastic from consumers, adds Dr Cunningham.

“Society is realising we are destroying our environment with plastic and we have to come up with solutions,” he says. “This project alone will not solve everything, but I believe this is the first step in providing material solutions that can be biodegradable and potentially be recycled without loss of functionality.”

The co-lead on the project, Dr Beatrice Smyth, will test the energy consumption of any new prototype to make sure it leaves a smaller carbon footprint than what it seeks to replace.

Working alongside industry is also crucial to the success of the project, says Dr Cunningham. Waitrose wants the researchers to keep manufacturers and consumers in mind when developing new packaging.

“We are attempting to create materials that won’t require a whole raft of new infrastructure and that will feed into existing manufacturing techniques. That way we can get the manufacturers on board and part of the project,” he explains. “It will also involve engaging with consumers from day one to find out what their current understanding of alternative, green or waste-derived packaging is – if any – and are there opportunities for us to learn from them and for us to teach them about the potential alternative materials that will be coming down the line.”

The roadblocks and other research

Dr Cunningham acknowledges that there are many challenges to the project. These include using waste products that don’t have to be shipped thousands of miles, ensuring costs aren’t massively increased for manufacturers and dealing with consumer concerns if the material created isn’t transparent.

Work on the project will span the next two years, but bringing the packaging to shelves could take another two years. However, Dr Cunningham is confident that this could

Bio-based films

have a real impact on the future.

“We are dealing with the top companies of the world,” he points out. “There are other projects that have got Nestle and PepsiCo, and because these companies are invested and involved, they see it much earlier and see the potential.”

His research is one of 17 successful bids submitted by the Institute of Global Food Security (IGFS) at Queen’s. Altogether, almost £1.5m of investment has been awarded.

Other projects include improving authenticity in the organic food supply chain, spearheaded by Professor Chris Elliott, who led the UK government’s inquiry into the horsemeat scandal and founded IGFS. Director Professor Nigel Scollan will also lead an initiative t to improve farmers’ access to the latest agritech.

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