Philippines - Innovators develop seaweed-based alternatives to plastic food wrappers

Innovators develop seaweed-based alternatives to plastic food wrappers

  • Developers at Flinders University and the German biotech company one • five have created a seaweed-based coating designed to replace plastics used in fast food packaging.
  • Many food containers and wrappers contain harmful plastics derived from fossil fuels that do not biodegrade and break into tiny microplastics that pollute the environment and harm marine ecosystems.
  • In the Philippines, researcher Denxybel Montinola has developed another type of biofilm from mango and seaweed that he hopes to make commercially available this year.
  • The development of seaweed-based bioplastics and coatings could boost the livelihoods of seaweed farmers who benefit from an industry that helps them feed their families and send their children to school.

Seaweed, a common name for thousands of marine plants and algae found in different water bodies, not only provides food and shelter for marine animals, but it can also help solve the plastic pollution problem. Materials researchers from Flinders University in Australia and German biomaterials developer one • fıve have developed a new nonpolluting seaweed-based coating material “designed to replace conventional fossil-based plastic coatings used in grease-resistant fast food packaging.”

The initiative aims to transform the global packaging and plastics industry by significantly reducing reliance on highly pollutive conventional plastic, according to Flinders University’s media release.

The packaging used to wrap the hamburgers, fries and chips we order from fast food establishments is typically laminated with a thin layer of plastic in order to make it grease-resistant. However, this poses a problem in terms of recycling, as this layer is typically made of synthetic polymer, which is derived from petroleum, such as polyethylene or polypropylene. This does not biodegrade and it breaks up into smaller pieces called microplastics.

The one • fıve and Flinders researchers have developed an alternative: a seaweed-based coating that is not made from synthetic polymer. This fits with the goals of recently proposed revisions to EU rules for packaging and packaging waste. The main objectives of the proposed rules are to prevent the generation of packaging waste, to boost high-quality “closed loop” recycling, and to reduce the need for primary natural resources and create a well-functioning market for secondary raw materials that will increase the use of recycled plastics.

Flinders University researchers Peng Su, Chanaka Mudugamuwa and Zhongfan Jia.
Flinders University researchers (from left to right) Peng Su, Chanaka Mudugamuwa and Zhongfan Jia testing the biopolymer coating for potential use in fast-food and other wrappers. Image courtesy of Flinders University.

A number of conditions have to be met for biodegradable and compostable plastics to have positive environmental impacts. First, the biomass used to produce biobased plastics must be sustainably sourced. Second, the biodegradable plastics must be approached with caution and should not be used as an excuse to litter. Lastly, industrially compostable plastics will be allowed for only some products and should be used only when they have environmental benefits, they do not negatively affect compost quality and there is a proper biowaste collection and treatment system in place.

According to Zhongfan Jia, lead researcher from the Flinders Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology, the seaweed-based coating material they developed uses natural polymer rather than fossil fuel-based products. Contrary to synthetic polymers, natural polymers occur in nature and are extracted from plants or animals. The new coating material is derived from sodium alginate — which is obtained from brown seaweed and typically used as a thickening agent, gelling agent, emulsifier, stabilizer and texture-improver.

As Jia explained, seaweed extracts have a similar structure to the natural fibers from which paper is made. Simple chemical modifications were made to enhance the grease and oil-resistant properties in order to hold fast food items for a certain period of time.

“Basically, we just do simple modifications but maintain the biodegradable or biocompatible properties of the seaweed polymer just to afford a little bit of extra properties,” said Jia. “So for this polymer, because they have a very similar structure to craft paper, therefore, potentially, there is no problem for this to be recycled to make new paper.”

Although the biomass for the new coating formulation is made from natural polymers extracted from seaweeds that are native to the South Australian coastline, Jia said it is also possible for other countries to adopt this technology.

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