Plastic waste is a global concern.
Only 31% of all plastic waste is currently recycled. And each year, eight million tonnes – representing 3% of the world’s annual plastic waste – enter the oceans.
At the same time, a third of all food produced for human consumption in the world results in food waste or loss per year.
All of these problems can be solved, at least in part, by the design of the packaging. And more precisely, according to the Spanish professor José Lagaron, by organic recycling.
Food safe without microplastics
Professor Lagaron, Group Leader and Founder of the New Materials and Nanotechnologies Group at the Institute of Agrochemistry and Food Technology (IATA) and the Spanish Council for Scientific Research (CSIS), addresses the issue with a focus on the circular bioeconomy.
Food packaging has traditionally been designed to protect and preserve food in all its forms. However, it is now recognized that current conditioning solutions are generally used between 15 minutes and 6 months. They have a “very short shelf life,” the professor told delegates at a recent European Food Forum (EFF) event.
“It is well known that plastics now accumulate in the environment and can accumulate as microscopic objects and even more problematically as microplastics. When they decompose, they do not biodegrade, in the sense that they turn into carbon dioxide, water or compost without ecotoxicity.
“But, in fact, they’re just made smaller and the chemicals are still there… and ultimately what happens is they end up in our food. This is a major problem. ”
Of the three approaches to create a circular economy in packaging – mechanical recycling, chemical recycling and organic recycling – Professor Lagaron supports the latter. And with two teams of researchers, is working on the development of a range of scalable solutions for the industry.
Towards a biocircular economy
In packaging, organic recycling means converting waste into products which can then be biodegraded in the soil.
Professor Lagaron favors this approach to mechanical recycling (which is widely used today) and chemical recycling, he explained.
Mechanical recycling reuses packaging materials to create new products. In principle, this approach should work, the professor explained, if it weren’t for the fact that plastics are chemically inert at room temperature (which means they don’t react with other substances or form. do not decompose) but begin to degrade when heated.
“When you reprocess them, when you heat them, they start to degrade” explains the researcher. “So how can we ensure that it hasn’t been reprocessed as many times as it actually creates a food safety problem? “
For the professor, mechanical recycling has its place in industry. But “this is not about sustainability” and it “Do not address [the fact that] part of the packaging is sent to the environment where it will remain forever, [or] at least throughout our life ”.
Another strategy, chemical recycling, breaks down plastic waste into petrochemical raw materials, which can then be reused for new, virgin grade polymers.
“It would be a solution that would solve this problem of potential biodegradation happening all the time during mechanical recycling strategies, but it still doesn’t solve the problem of what happens when some of that packaging comes out of the recycling program.” , he said, alluding to their long lifespan once in the environment.
Professor Lagaron, on the other hand, believes that the solution of his groups is “final”. It valorizes the by-products of the food industry, transforms them into packaging products, so that they are then degraded in the soil.
From field to fork to … field
The European Union is also supporting this solution by investing in research products intended to create bio-recyclable solutions for industry: YPACK and Usable Packaging BBI. Prof. Lagaron coordinates the two projects.
“Our efforts have been devoted to ensuring that [our] packaging materials may degrade in the soil, in home composting and in the environment – even in the sea ”, he explained.
“When we can guarantee this, I would say we can agree on a solution [that aligns with] the circular bioeconomy: we start from waste, we turn it into products, and through bio-organic recycling, we bring it back into carbon dioxide, water, and compost. Or they can also be reduced as a raw material for the production of new packaging.
Professor Lagaron is convinced that biodegradable and compostable packaging materials can be produced on an industrial scale.
For example, the YPACK project proved the production of phytons from packaging material in the form of trays and films. The film is flexible, compostable and single-layered with a high barrier.
“They actually have the same properties as the materials we’re trying to replace – petroleum-derived plastics,” we have been told.
“Our intention is not only to create materials that can be used as packaging, but also that can replace existing materials, as they offer the same properties as requested.
“Of course, this means that we have to interact with the entire packaging chain in order to ensure positive life cycle analyzes…”
In another EU-funded project, Usable Packaging BBI, the team attempted to create bottles and other packaging formats to demonstrate that the ‘complete family’ of packaging products currently on the market can be reproduced in a sustainable manner.
As part of this project, Professor Lagaron oversaw the development of reusable plates that can be washed over 125 times. At its end of life, the plaque can be buried in the ground via home or industrial composting systems, where it is exposed to “moisture microorganisms” and completely biodegraded.
Another example developed by the cohort is a biodegradable film that can be heat sealed and used for frozen foods, among other applications. “It shows the performance required by all these applications and can correspond to the properties required by the market” he said.
The take home message? “Biological recycling, which means we take waste… and bring it back to the ground, is a workable strategy…
“It is the most sustainable solution for the future.”