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Biobased Packaging: sustainable, functional and attractive

Published: 01-05-2015

Biobased plastics are set to replace petroleum-based plastics. These materials offer great benefits, but are relatively unknown in the food industry. “Slowly but surely, more suppliers will switch to biobased packaging,” predicted Karin Molenveld at Wageningen UR Food & Biobased Research. 

There are many reasons to seek alternatives to petroleum-based plastics: fossil fuel depletion, a wildly fluctuating oil price, the need to reduce carbon emissions, an accumulation of plastic litter and the need for packaging materials with new characteristics. In response, researchers have developed a whole new generation of plant or plant-waste based packaging materials, some with characteristics such as breathability or antimicrobial properties. There are already countless applications for them.

The food industry is taking its first steps towards using biobased packaging materials. “These materials and their applications are rather unknown,” said Karin Molenveld, Senior Scientist Biopolymers at Wageningen UR Food & Biobased Research and author of the recently published Biobased Packaging Catalogue. “That’s a shame, especially since some biobased materials have specific characteristics, like more suitable barrier properties, that make them a better choice than traditional packaging materials. And some biobased materials are particularly attractive to see or pleasant to touch. That creates interesting marketing opportunities, for example for packaging luxury products or creating special designs. And finally, the price of these materials is generally more stable than that of oil-based plastics, which is a major plus for the industry.”

The recently published Biobased Packaging Catalogue provides an overview of all commercially available biobased packaging materials in The Netherlands in 2014. The entries include a description of the raw materials used, the packaging materials available and their possible applications, as well as a list of suppliers.

Misconception
Both industry and consumers are showing increased interest in sustainable packaging, according to Molenveld. She noted: “Sustainable packaging has many facets. Using biobased packaging materials is just one way of approaching the issue. Don’t forget, most environmental benefits are gained by avoiding losses and reducing packaging altogether. Reuse and recycling are sustainable solutions too.”

“A frequent misconception is that biobased is the same as biodegradable. That is not the case. Some biobased materials are not biodegradable and compostable, while in fact some petroleum-based plastics are. ‘Biobased’ refers to the material’s origins, while ‘biodegradable’ refers to the end of its life cycle. This is why we don’t speak of bioplastics but of biobased plastics. The difference between biobased and biodegradable is particularly important to end users. After all, that determines what to do with the packaging after use.”

Holistic Approach
Designing biobased packaging requires a holistic approach. “The entire design process has to be taken into account and every department in the company has to be involved in the design,” said Molenveld. “New materials often make new solutions feasible, both technically and in terms of design. One example is Danone’s polylactic acid, or PLA, yoghurt container. While designing the new container, Danone discovered that its wall could be made much thinner than those of the original polystyrene container. That meant great savings in terms of material, and hence a cost reduction, along with a new, more attractive design.”

Biobased plastics have many environmental and other advantages and can replace conventional plastics entirely in the long run, Molenveld said. “Demand will only increase in the years to come. The time is ripe and the materials are available.” She forecasted that ‘drop ins’ will be the most popular products at first; these are biobased plastic packaging materials that are identical to petroleum-based plastics and can be introduced without requiring any additional changes. For food producers looking to replace oil-based plastics out of concern that the latter might contain harmful additives new biobased materials are also an interesting alternative.

One key characteristic of packaging is barrier properties. These properties are often different in biobased materials than conventional materials. “Packaging design needs to take these barrier properties into account,” Molenveld explained. “PLA is more water vapor permeable than PE. This can be both a pro and a con. It’s good for products that ‘produce’ water like fresh bread and vegetables. Molds on tomato vines grow slower when packaged in PLA. But it also means PLA-packaged foods may dry out faster. Another example is PEF, a biobased alternative to PET. PEF has better barrier properties for water vapor, oxygen and carbon dioxide and is excellent for bottling soft drinks.”

Marketing
“Technically, the sky is the limit,” said Molenveld. “The real challenge is to develop new, cost efficient and practical solutions to pack food products more sustainably. We’re advocating a case by case approach. Every new packaging design requires a thorough evaluation of the interaction between product and material, as well as the marketing and end-of-life aspects. After all, packaging is a great opportunity for communicating with consumers. Zandonella’s Biofoam ice cream containers are an excellent example of this comprehensive approach. The product, packaging material and packaging design are all a perfect match.”

“Multinationals like Heinz, Danone, Procter & Gamble and Coca Cola are actively looking for more sustainable packaging for their products, like the biobased plastic bottle Avantium developed in collaboration with Coca Cola and Danone. Such projects are a real incentive for the development of biobased plastics,” Molenveld concluded.

Abbreviations

Abbreviation Material Origin
EPS Expanded polystyrene Petroleum-based
PBS Polybutylene succinate Petroleum-based/biobased
PE Polyethylene Petroleum-based
PEF Polyethylene furanoate Biobased
PET Polyethylene terephthalate Petroleum-based/biobased
PHA Polyhydroxy alkanoate Biobased
PLA Polylactic acid Biobased
PP Polypropylene Petroleum-based
PS Polystyrene Petroleum-based

 

TABLE – Fossil-based plastics, their application and biobased alternatives

(Source: Wageningen UR Food & Biobased Research 2014)

Petroleum-based Application Biobased alternative
PE Film, small bottles Bio-PEStarch blendsStarch hybridsPLA blends

PHA

PHA blends

PP Films, small bottles and thermoformed products Bio-PBSPHA blendsPLA blendsBio-PP under development
PS Hard plastic packaging and foam PLA (foam, films, and hard packaging)Cellulose (pulp trays)Starch blends
PET Bottles, trays and blisters Bio-PETPLAPEF under development

 

To order a hard copy of the Biobased Packaging Catalogue please contact: secretariaat.bbp@wur.nl