New bio-plastic packaging developed

New bio-plastic packaging developed

Compostable bio-plastics also suitable as packaging material for food

Plastic packaging today makes up a significant proportion of the waste generated. "In Germany, almost three million tons of plastic packaging are disposed of every year," reports the Fraunhofer Institute. Of these, “not even half are recycled” and the “rest burned or ended up in nature.” An alternative could be compostable bioplastic packaging.

Up to now, according to the Fraunhofer Institute, bio-plastic was only of limited use as packaging material because it "did not adequately protect the goods from odors, oxygen and water vapor". In an EU project, Fraunhofer researchers have now developed a “compostable, biodegradable functional material” that can be applied as a coating on other biodegradable packaging materials. This would enable the environmentally friendly packaging to be used in significantly more areas in the future, the researchers hope.

Plastic waste is a significant environmental problem The biggest problem with the tons of plastic waste so far has been its difficult decomposability. “It takes around 400 years for a normal plastic bag to decompose. Plastic bottles take 450 years, nylon nets for fishing even 600 years, ”reports the Fraunhofer Institute. Since only a small proportion of the global plastic waste is recycled, it is increasingly accumulating in the environment. The oceans in particular are extremely polluted. For example, "the amount of waste in the oceans is currently estimated at over 100 million tons"; of which “around three quarters are made of plastics”, reports the Federal Environment Agency (UBA). According to the UBA, up to 6.4 million tons are added every year, and an average of 13,000 plastic waste particles float on every square kilometer of the sea surface today. There are said to be 600,000 cubic meters of waste in the North Sea alone.

Alternatives to conventional plastics sought In view of the increasing garbage problem "alternatives to petroleum-based plastics that can be completely biodegraded are being searched feverishly," reports the Fraunhofer Institute. Previous bio-plastics did not have the required properties. "They tear quickly and are not easily compostable," the institute said. In addition, they are hardly suitable as food packaging in view of the inadequate barrier properties against water vapor, oxygen and odorous substances, since the contents spoil quickly or take on the taste of other foods. In the European project “DibbioPack”, researchers therefore looked for ways to solve the known problems with bio-plastics.

Biodegradable coating developed
The team around Dr. Sabine Amberg-Schwab, Head of the Functional Barrier Layers Department at the Würzburg Fraunhofer Institute for Silicate Research ISC, developed a hybrid plastic coating based on biopolymers as part of the EU project that can be broken down naturally and disposed of as compost waste. The biodegradable functional layer bioORMOCER®e can be applied to biodegradable films and thus form a functional barrier against oxygen, water vapor, aromas or chemical substances, reports the Fraunhofer Institute. "The new biodegradable coating material is suitable for containers and packaging, such as foils," the institute said. The researchers also report that the materials are even equipped with additional functions and can have an antibacterial effect, for example. In the future, bioORMOCER®e could be used for packaging food, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. "We hope to be able to finish compostable films with our coating in such a way that sustainable packaging is just as functional as conventional packaging and is a success on the market," emphasizes Dr. Sabine Amberg-Schwab.

Nature as a role model According to the researchers, "a look at nature" helped develop the material. They used "natural substances in different recipes that are biodegradable and have a good barrier effect", explains Amberg-Schwab. For the new bioORMOCER®s, biopolymers such as cellulose and chitosan have been chemically modified so that they can be processed, the Fraunhofer Institute reports. The fabrics were then bound by an inorganic framework made of silicon dioxide, which itself has good barrier properties. "This scaffold does not disintegrate in the natural degradation process like all other natural substances used, but only small residues of silicon dioxide, i.e. sand, remain during the degradation", the institute announced.

Compostability confirmed in first tests In the test compost of the Fraunhofer Institute, the first tests confirmed that films coated with bioORMOCER® actually rot, the researchers report. The decay was already clearly recognizable after six weeks. The next step is to "now test the dismantling process as part of the project running until March 2016 according to international standards", according to the Fraunhofer Institute. Subsequently, more extensive practical tests can be carried out, whereby the innovative bio-plastics must first prove their suitability for everyday use in a number of packaging tests. Because "the new packaging material has to be just as good as the one that corresponds to the current state of the art," concluded Dr. Sabine Amberg-Schwab. (fp)

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