“The plastic system is broken,” but science has the answers to fix it: VTT Research Center on the future of packaging

“The plastic system is broken,” but science has the answers to fix it: VTT Research Center on the future of packaging

04 Oct 2018 --- VTT Technical Research Center of Finland, a leading European research and technology organization, are using science and technology to prove to the industry that plastic can be part of a strong circular economy, with the addition of bio-based raw materials and sustainable design, as well as a three-pronged approach to recycling: mechanical, chemical and biological. PackagingInsights got in contact with the team at VTT to detail some of their key developments, as well as their outlooks for the future of packaging.

VTT arranges its work around three main pillars, Maija Pohjakallio, Research Team leader, D.Sc. (Tech) of VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, tells PackagingInsights.

“The first is the use of alternative raw materials for making new types of plastics such as modified cellulose. Second, is how you define packaging to be more sustainable – so it's monomaterial and more recyclable. The third is developing recycling technologies for traditional and renewable plastics,” explains Pohjakallio.

Within the third pillar – developing recycling technologies – there are three more components: “First, mechanical recycling, which is used most and at industrial level. The second is the chemical route, where you get a chemical product which as a result can be used to build new plastics and the third is the biological and biotechnological route – such as PlastBug: Microbes that could eat plastic waste,” she explains.

Click to Enlarge
In VTT's PlastBug projects, microbes are being screened through
a three-stage process.

Plastbug: Developing microbes to degrade plastic
Within the biotechnological route, PackagingInsights speaks to Koivuranta Kari, Principal Scientist and Project Manager at VTT, who is leading the Plastbug investigation.

“We are looking for a solution to the problem of marine plastic waste that is spread all over. Where recycling systems are not feasible, we could offer an alternative,” says Kari.

The researchers hope to develop a microbe that can degrade plastic waste to valuable products, such as fuels or chemicals. If achieved, containers full of plastic waste could be processed at a time – offering a portable way to tackle plastic waste in remote areas, for example.

“We know that we can find these kinds of microbes. The modification of microbes is strong in our background and with this we can speed up plastic degradation. We could make it suitable for a range of different plastics too,” he says.

The possibilities at the end of the study seem significant, but the study is still at the outset. The first step is to screen the microbes: “We have a three-stage screening system. The third phase is the most critical phase – are they really eating plastic or are they eating something else? Plastic is a problematic material as it has other aspects to it that the microbes might want to eat, so perhaps they are not eating the actual polymers. But we are hopeful.”

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VTT's packaging solution made of cellulose is suitable for a range of 
applications such as nuts, cereals and coffee.

When could we expect to see results? Kari estimates that by 2030 the container could be ready – and it will be able to recycle 10 tons of plastic waste at a time. Ideally, there would even be a fleet of them. 

Ellen MacArthur recognition for bio-based packaging
Earlier this year, the Ellen MacArthur foundation awarded VTT for its packaging solution made of cellulose.

As material, cellulose is safe, renewable, recyclable and compostable. VTT developed a compostable and lightweight packaging material by combining cellulose films with different, but complementary properties.

The plastic-like packaging material is suitable for dry and greasy products, such as nuts, cereals, coffee, condiments and raisins. The greatest benefits can be reached when the material is used for packaging products with a long shelf-life.

In terms of properties, the material is highly competitive or in many cases even better than the currently available biodegradable bioplastics. With minor modifications, it can be produced with existing production machinery.

“By optimizing the layer structure, we can improve the technical properties and reduce the number of materials used. If the package was manufactured of one cellulose-based material only that would meet all the requirements for a good packaging material, the package would be very thick and heavy,” says Ali Harlin, Research Professor at VTT. 

He estimates that the packaging material could be commercialized within three to five years.

The answer to tackling the issue of plastic waste lies in science
Science holds the answers to addressing plastic waste, Pohjakallio states. 

Click to Enlarge
Maija Pohjakallio, Research Team leader, D.Sc. (Tech) of VTT

Science is able to provide an array of routes to tackling plastic recycling and to offering alternative materials. Notably, of the plastic that is currently recycled, 98 percent is recycled through the mechanical route, meaning there are far more technologies – such as chemical and biological – that could be utilized.

“One of the reasons it hasn’t happened before is that virgin plastics are so cheap that there hasn’t been a cost economical way to look at a more circular system. But from society and within companies and the research community, now is the moment to develop all types of recycling technologies and society is ready to adapt to it. We all want a more sustainable and circular plastic system,” Pohjakallio says.

There is no need to banish all plastics whilst trying to achieve a more circular economy. Instead, science can play a role in participating in the societal shift toward regulating plastic, as well as offering more eco-friendly options. 

“We also need to get alternative feedstock, and reduce the number of single-use plastics. It’s a problem on a systemic level. The development of technology is important but, to fix the system, we need the politicians, the consumers and everybody in society to be a part. It’s not all about technology; there are other drivers too.”

“Plastics as such are very useful for many applications. But the plastic system is broken and we need to repair it,” Pohjakallio concludes.

By Laxmi Haigh

To contact our editorial team please email us at editorial@cnsmedia.com

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