10 February 2020
In this article for Food Manufacture, managing associate Laura Clews considers some examples of innovation in alternatives to single-use plastics.
For decades, many countries around the world simply exported recyclable materials, including plastics, to China for reuse in their recycling programs; in fact almost half of the world’s recycling was exported to China as this was more economical than developing national recycling programs. However, in 2018, China announced a ban on importing waste, including plastics, citing environmental reasons for this change. Accordingly, many countries around the world must either develop economical recycling facilities or turn to the use of landfill sites (which could not be used indefinitely!).
Through the actions of many people in the media
spotlight, such as David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg, the environmental
impact of day-to-day life has also been brought to the forefront of consumers’
concerns. In particular, consumers are looking to more environmentally friendly
alternatives to single use plastics within the food and drink industry.
Thus, endeavouring to meet these needs, many companies
within this industry have funded intensive research to find environmentally
friendly and economically viable methods of recycling plastic and/or suitable
alternative packaging materials.
One company looking to find more effective and
environmentally friendly methods of recycling plastics is Green Lizard
Technologies. The method of recycling waste polyethylene terephthalate (PET)
developed by this company uses proprietary catalyst systems to break down the
PET polymer chain to its raw materials (BHET – bis(hydroxyethyl)terephthalate).
It has been reported that this new method is highly effective, producing yields
of BHET of up to 61% from the reaction mixture. Once PET has been broken down
to BHET it can then be reused to form other plastics or alternative polymeric
It has been reported that this process produces recycled
materials which are essentially free from contaminants, and therefore can be
reused to produce food and drink packaging, such as PET recycled water bottles.
This new recycling method has caught the eye of major
players within the industry, and it was announced on 14 November 2019 that Poseidon Plastics Ltd., a joint venture
between Green Lizard Technologies, Panima Capital & Abundia Industries,
signed an agreement with the world’s leading differentiated producer of PET and
PEN polyester films, DuPoint Teijin Films (DTF) in order to develop this unique
polyester recycling technology.
A report by Green Alliance published in January 2020, ‘Plastic promises: What the grocery sector is
really doing about packaging’, looks at the kneejerk reaction by many
retailers and suppliers to replace single use plastics with other materials
which are considered to be “more
environmentally friendly” in response to the increased media attention and
growing pressures from the public.
The report comments that many retailers and suppliers are
simply replacing single use plastic packaging with alternative single use
materials, such as glass, paper, wood and biodegradable materials, without
undertaking a rigorous analysis of the environmental impact of such materials
compared to single use plastics.
Worryingly, many reports have found that due to the
manufacturing process, number of times consumers are likely to reuse these materials
and the availability of recycling schemes, these alternative materials can be
more damaging to the environment than single use plastics. For example, a study for the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2011 found that paper
bags generally require four times more energy to manufacture compared to
Accordingly, there is a drive within the food and drink
industry to source alternative materials which are more environmentally
friendly and also meet the common requirements of the food and drink industry
(such as preserving the packaged consumable).
For most adults (and particularly those who work in big
cities and/or have children) coffee not simply a drink choice, but an essential
for day-to-day life. In fact, it has been reported that in the UK 95 million
cups of coffee are consumed a day, which produces around 500,000 tonnes of used
coffee grounds every year, most of which simply ends up on landfill sites (see ‘Put Your Coffee Waste to Work’, by
Bio-bean). Fortunately, Berlin based company, Kaffeeform, has found a way to
repurpose this waste product, turning coffee grounds into durable cups.
Kaffeeform states that these alternative cups are formed from recycled coffee
grounds and other plant-based resources that are hardened with biopolymers.
In addition, New York based biotech company, Ecovative Design,
has also produced a new environmentally friendly material based on mushrooms.
The material has been used to form surfboard blanks to replace those previously
used formed from expanded polystyrene or polyurethane foam with a fibreglass
The blanks, which are entirely biodegradable, are made from a material called Myco foam which is formed from mycelium (the white, glue-like, branching part of fungus referred to as hyphae) and organic farm waste, such as corn husks, straw and lentil pods. During manufacture the mycelium grows, feeding on the organic waste, and forms long entangled fibres. This new material has been an immediate success, and not only in the surfing world. Ecovatve Design has now branched out into making faux-leather materials, packaging and skincare products, forming partnerships with well-known companies such as Bolt Threads, IKEA and DELL.
This article was first published in Food Manufacture Magazine in February 2020.
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