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Food & Beverage

Sustainable Food Packaging Solutions

Turnkey Automated Batching System Helps Company Reach Sustainability Goals

Biosphere Technologies sustainable food packagingAn international survey published in June 2011 by Accenture found that 93 percent of companies surveyed had sustainability initiatives in place, and more than two thirds of decision-makers regard sustainability as integral to business success. And 72 percent of these decision-makers say the benefits of implementing sustainability policies have exceeded their expectations — a notable testament to an idea that was outside the mainstream just a decade ago. 

Sustainability has come a long way, fast. There are now more than 88 million Google matches for it. Colleges offer degrees in it. And in the highly visible packaging industry, there are arguably more opportunities, and more ways to implement sustainability principles on a meaningful scale, than in virtually any sector.

Biosphere Industries was founded on that belief in 2002. Its mission, according to founder Elie Helou Jr., is reflected in its name. “Biosphere sought to provide closed loop food packaging systems that have minimal to no impact on the earth's natural life cycles,” he explains.  “Using yearly renewable raw materials, and ultra-efficient (essentially no-waste) manufacturing processes, we wanted to deliver truly earth-friendly solutions.” 

Helou is an aeronautical engineer and a recognized expert in composites technology. In 2002, having spent 11 years in the composites aerospace world developing leading-edge technologies, Helou decided to help develop something that did not last thousands of years when disposed of. A major priority was using yearly grown raw materials that would have minimal impact on the environment. Other priorities related to defining the material. “We wanted to create a material that was primarily starch-based,” he explains. “Tapioca was chosen due to its allergen-free nature — some people are allergic to other starches, such as potato. We wanted it to be harvestable without killing the plant, so the supply would be annually renewable. We wanted it to be rigid, too — and have insulating properties so it could be a replacement for EPS or Styrofoam.”

“Dual ovenability” (microwave and oven-capable) was also important. Finally, the material had to be certifiable as compostable, biodegradable and salt water-biodegradable by independent, recognized agencies. In the U.S., that meant organizations such as the Biodegradable Products Institute, the gold standard for sustainable products; in Europe, the important agency was DIN CERTCO.

Five years into the development effort, Biosphere introduced an entirely new technology, in terms of both its composition and its process, for sustainable single-use food packaging that met all of these requirements — and more. Now marketed under the trade names Biosphere Bakeware and Blueware Serveware, it is unique in its approach: Rather than convert starch into plastic, the Biosphere process “bakes” the starch in a process similar to the baking of bread or muffins (ironically, two of the product categories that benefit most from the technology.)

Ingredients in Biosphere's unique “platform” technology include tapioca starch as the primary ingredient, a lesser amount of grass fibers and additives that are custom to each recipe that add strength, flexibility or color. The most critical aspect of the manufacturing process is ingredient batching, which must be highly accurate.

“The accuracy requirement was the spec most off-putting for vendors when we looked for a system,” says Helou. “Our goal was to combine high output, which we expected to accelerate over time, with ingredient accuracy that would never deviate more than 0.5 perecent.”

Helou and his engineering team interviewed several candidate vendors and — on the basis of speed, repeatability, lead time for completion and cost — selected a turnkey automated batching system engineered and manufactured by Ingredient Masters Inc. of Cincinnati, Ohio.

Similar in design to systems installed at General Mills and Kellogg Company, the Biosphere batching system has five major modules and sequentially delivers dry and liquid ingredients to a 180 kg mixer. Installation was completed — by just a single worker — in two weeks.

The Equipment

The first of the five modules is a super sack bulk handling system comprised of six 54 cu. ft. dispensing hoppers arranged in a single row. Each is equipped with pneumatic slide gate valves with dual dribble positions to optimize cycle times and discharge accuracy. Air-activated vibration at each hopper is controlled by a PLC to ensure consistent product flow. A robotic scale cart, also governed by the PLC, moves under the dispensing hoppers and receives the precise amount of each ingredient specified in the recipe. The scale cart automatically docks with a transfer hopper to transport the ingredients. There are computer-controlled dust collection points at each of the five hopper discharge sites; dust collection can also be activated manually during hopper refilling.

The second module, a vacuum transfer system, is controlled by the central computer system. It automatically requests delivery of the next sequence of material whenever a premix hopper is empty. It has a primary premix hopper mounted over the mixer that discharges through the mixer port, and a secondary premix hopper that discharges into the primary. A vacuum receiver mounted above the secondary hopper transports ingredients sequentially from the scale cart transfer hopper into the secondary premix hopper.

Module 3 is a fiber handling system with a mechanically agitated hopper mounted on load cells. It functions as a “loss in weight” scale hopper, and can also be filled from an existing fiber shredder discharge conveyor.

The 50-lb. bag handling system, also controlled by the central computer, has three agitated hoppers, each equipped with screw feeders that discharge above a common platform scale. The scale functions as a “gain-in-weight” system. Colorant additions are made by the operator.

The final module is the liquid handling system, which discharges liquid ingredients such as water, into a small port on top of the mixer. Surge tanks are refilled via gravity flow each time a full tote is connected to the system.

System control is provided by an Allen Bradley Compact Logix PLC running RSLogic 5000 for the PLC logic and RS view for operator graphics. A Dell Pentium computer runs Windows XP and RSLix provides PC to PC communication. A Microsoft access database stores recipe and ingredient information and records batch data. 

The database accommodates an unlimited library of recipes. Each recipe is date-stamped with the time of the last revision/approval. Recipe information includes the sequence of material additions and the control parameters for the mixer. A master list containing the operating parameters for each ingredient is maintained in the database as well; these parameters are ingredient-specific, so the system does not require a manual entry of parameters when ingredient modifications are made at the dispensing stage.

The Process

Powdered raw material (there is also a liquid component) for both Biosphere product lines is received in 650 kg to 1000 kg “super sacks,” and subjected to full lab inspection using commercial bakery standards. Super sacks are installed on racks using a fork lift and frame, and contents are released into hoppers. When an order is received, the operator creates a job order containing the recipe information, number of batches to be run and batch size. The computer confirms the availability of each dry ingredient, and sends the job order information to the PLC. While the previous batch is mixing, the operator places a mixer bowl under the discharge of the first (fiber) hopper and initiates batching.

When all starting conditions (equipment positions, material availability) are met, a robotic cart moves to the station containing the filler and receives the discharge specified in the recipe. Ingredients are metered to a gain-in-weight type weigh scale — the type most often used in food and pharma processing due to its higher accuracy and more manageable sanitation routine. When discharge is complete, the scale cart docks with the transfer hopper and sends the filler to the receiving hopper above the mixer, then through the secondary premix hopper, to the primary. The PLC then discharges the filler and meters liquid #1 into the mixer.

Following fiber transfer, the cart moves to the starch hopper, then on to the remaining ingredients — some of which are as fine as powdered sugar — with scent and colorant (if specified) as the final additions. When each batch is complete, the system displays the recipe amount for each ingredient, along with actual amount discharged. The system is distinctive in that it supplies all of the required material to the mixer without delaying the mixing cycle.

The Ingredient Masters system maintains a deductive inventory of the material in each dispensing hopper. When a discharge is made, the PLC deducts the amount from the available weight n the hopper. When a hopper is refilled, the operator enters the weight of the bulk bag into the computer and the PLC adds the weight to the available weight for the hopper. The discharge accuracy of the system for a 540-lb. batch is shown on the chart. The Ingredient Masters system can produce one batch every seven minutes.

After the mixing cycle, the material is baked in molds. After baking, the Biosphere material is cool to the touch — a huge advantage for handling and process management. Product can then be used in commercial food preparation at up to 420 F.  Most notably, the molding process is “net” — no trimming or sanding is needed.

The Biosphere material does not require a coating for low moisture applications, although the firm's R&D group has developed one: a cellulose-based formula for prepared meals and drinking cups. It is currently undergoing compostability testing. The only by-product of the manufacturing process is steam.

Biosphere's material has proved ideal as bakeware. Muffin trays and pie pans are excellent applications, as are bakeware products with unique features, or deep draw requirements. The material will produce product with depths of 9 inches and greater.

The material has exceptional insulative properties and adequate short-term moisture-resistant properties as well, so it’s a natural for ice cream. “Bakeware is where we started selling the technology,” says Helou, “because the material lets companies bake and sell in the same pan. The insulating properties are of great interest to the cold markets, such as smoothie and yogurt stores.”

Biosphere has invented the ability to manufacture threaded containers and small cups with screw-on lids. “Versatility is great,” suggests, Helou, “but the real advantage is, regardless of what food it's used with, it can be put into paper recycling bins. It can also be home-composted with regular food, because it degrades at the same rate.” Recently, tests by the U.S. Navy determined that it degrades completely in the ocean environment with zero toxicity in about 3 weeks. Paper, even after shredding, can take up to three years to degrade. By the end of 2011, there will also be an edible version of the product line for pets. 

The “yearly grown” 100 percent non-petroleum-based formula developed by Biosphere has proved well-suited to high volume production. At its Carpentaria, Calif., development center, Biosphere has been able to test and fully develop this new technology. The company is evaluating sites for a second production facility in the Midwest.

“Our goal,” says Helou, “is to source locally, and use locally. We want to put farmers to work here, growing starch, bamboo and other ingredients, and avoid importing anything from abroad.”

“Biosphere,” he says, “suggests a ‘closed loop’ — and our mission is to get as close to that as technologically possible.”

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