Process and control today | Is plastic over?

Although plastics have received significant backlash and criticism in recent years due to their environmental impact, they play an important role in food packaging. In fact, their versatility, strength, and durability make finding a comparable alternative an incredible challenge. In order to develop sustainable food and beverage packaging without sacrificing performance, food manufacturers should use biodegradable and bio-based polymers. But how profitable are these greener plastics? Ben Smye, Head of Growth at the material search engine Matmatch, researched.

The food industry is one of the industries that has benefited most from developments in plastics over the past century. Just as refrigeration revolutionized the preservation of food for consumers, plastic packaging changed product options and food distribution. Plastics provided an effective, mass-produced means of extending the shelf life of products by protecting them from oxidation, microbial growth, and some shipping damage.

To date, thermoplastics are used for most food and beverage packaging. This is due to their flexibility, impact resistance, their lower molecular weight and, above all, their recyclability.

However, recycling alone is not enough. As it has been shown that plastic is often not properly disposed of or the infrastructure is not in place to support the recycling of all plastics, the need for other environmentally friendly alternatives has arisen.

Several materials such as paper, glass, and aluminum have gained popularity for food packaging in recent years. But as every designer knows, replacing one material with another is not easy – the properties of the original material and its replacement must be taken into account. This has led many food packaging companies to consider biodegradable and compostable polymers instead, which can have properties comparable to conventional plastics.

The degradation process a polymer goes through helps determine whether it is biodegradable or compostable. In the former case, the polymer decomposes in certain controlled environments, for example at high temperatures or when exposed to certain chemicals, into carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds and biomass.

Compostable polymers, on the other hand, are defined much more precisely. The European standard EN13432 requires that any plastic that is labeled as “compostable” must be decomposed in less than twelve weeks under industrial conditions – at temperatures of up to 60 degrees Celsius.

Within these definitions, there are many biodegradable polymers that are found to be valuable in food packaging. Natural polymers such as cellulose can be used as films and fresh produce packaging; non-natural polymers such as polyglycolide (PGA) can serve as a protective layer in multilayer packaging; and synthetic polymers, particularly polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA), can be used in bottles and containers.

Where biodegradable and bio-based polymers have faced limitations in the past, however, is their scalability and compatibility with existing processing methods. But the dynamism of innovation in green polymers, which has increased in recent years, is helping to overcome these hurdles.

Polylactic acid (PLA), for example, is attracting great interest in food and beverage packaging. This interest arose because of its thermal and mechanical properties as well as its compatibility with processing methods such as injection molding, film extrusion and thermoforming. These properties have led it to be researched and used in areas such as food bowls, disposable straws, and lids.

A large amount of research is developing into biopolymers and biodegradable alternatives to conventional plastics. As always, it is important for product designers to keep up with the latest developments and ensure that the alternative materials have the performance characteristics that the plastic packaging market expects.

Matmatch works closely with many material suppliers around the world, some of which are constantly being developed in the area of ​​more environmentally friendly packaging materials.

One such company is Total Corbion PLA, a leading manufacturer of PLA, a bio-based and biodegradable polymer that can be used in packaging applications. PLA is made from renewable sources and has a lower carbon footprint compared to conventional plastics. A number of PLA materials are approved for food contact and as the development of their Luminy portfolio continues, Total Corbion PLA offers innovative and bio-based solutions to packaging problems.

Another company is Stora Enso, which focuses on bio-based materials. “Bio-based” means that the materials are made from renewable raw materials and not from oil-based sources. Stora Enso is a leading global provider of renewable packaging solutions. The company’s goal is to move away from fossil materials. As a result, their products have a lower carbon footprint than conventional plastics and often have superior recycling properties.

The challenge of creating a sustainable material that can serve as a one-to-one alternative to conventional plastics has yet to be solved. Biodegradable materials could meet the criteria to a certain extent, depending on the sustainability of their raw materials. However, there is no shortage of companies developing innovative products to offer an alternative to conventional plastics.

With so much research and development in the pipeline, the future of eco-friendly food packaging seems to be full of breakthrough ideas. And as companies like Matmatch connect designers with material suppliers who can meet their needs, a revolution in food packaging seems to be emerging.

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