Australian researchers discover seaweed solution as PFAS alternative for fast-food packaging
26 Oct 2022 --- Flinders University materials researchers in Australia and One-Five, a German biomaterials developer, are using seaweed extracts to develop biopolymer coating materials to replace current foodservice packaging.
The non-pollutive biomaterials are designed to replace conventional fossil-based plastic coatings used in grease-resistant quick service restaurant (QRS) packaging. The researchers state their discoveries could solve packaging waste dilemmas for the fast-food industry.
Grease-resistant paper is typically coated with plastic and other environmentally harmful chemicals, such as polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). PFAS have been found to negatively impact people and the environment.
“The seaweed extracts are similar to the natural fibers from which paper is made. Our novel specialist treatments boost the grease-resistance feature of the seaweed via simple modifications while not affecting the biodegradability nor recyclability of the coated paper,” explains Dr. Zhongfan Jia, lead researcher from the Flinders Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology.
The researchers developed a prototype coating from seaweed that they state meets the functional requirements of conventional grease-resistant packaging materials. Using seaweed creates a circular solution, allowing the grease-resistant film to be biodegradable, deriving from natural ingredients.
The ecological biopolymer took extracts from certain seaweeds, added modifications and formed degradable bioplastic films. It was made from natural polymers extracted from seaweeds native to the South Australian coastline.
The extracts are transformed through a proprietary processing method that produces functional biopolymer sheets to be cut or coated onto various surfaces, depending on the application.
Seaweed packaging solutions are on an upward trend. Earlier this year, the European Commission launched a stakeholder platform to promote algae use for packaging.
On top of that, UK-based company Notpla raised £10 million (US$13.3 million) in series A round funding for its seaweed-based packaging materials.
The researchers at Flinders University studied seaweed properties and functions for broader scientific applications but discovered a needed solution to plastic QRS packaging.
PFAS are present in typical grease-resistant fast-food packaging. They are chemicals widely used because they are stain-resistant, water-repellent and grease-proof. They also aid in maintaining the shape of bags and bowls that contain hot or greasy foods.
The studies are searching for confirmed applications of seaweed extracts to replace PFAS. Using seaweed also creates environmental benefits, with scientists creating solutions where harvesting the seaweed nourishes the ecosystem it comes from.
“Seaweed cultivation helps to naturally rehabilitate marine environments, reduce greenhouse gasses, and mitigate coastal erosion. It’s important for us to use sustainable inputs upstream to ensure our products are environmentally safe, from cradle to grave,” says Claire Gusko, One-Five co-founder.
PFAS chemicals are being banned across the globe. Governmental actions have been taken against the use of PFAS and other chemicals that have been reported in QSR packaging. The EU and US governments have enacted partial bans on the chemicals.
“We are able to reduce harmful plastic pollution with this product, and we are also using feedstock that is environmentally regenerative,” Gusko continues.
A US national survey found that 88% of the public agree that companies should work toward removing plastics from packaging.
The two companies are now working toward transferring laboratory-scale processing to produce industrially-relevant volumes of the natural polymer coating. The scientists aim to significantly reduce QRS’ reliance on pollutive conventional plastic.
By Sabine Waldeck
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