Processing Magazine

Finnish scientists develop new bio-based plastic packaging

December 13, 2012

ESPOO, Finland — Researchers in Finland have developed new technology that can boost the quality of bio-based plastic packaging and could allow the industry to move away from petroleum-based plastics.

According to the Environment News Service, the new technology developed by the VTT Technical Research Center, a state-owned research institute under the Finnish Ministry of Employment and the Economy, would bring bio-based plastic packaging to a new level, not just in terms of environmental protection but also in terms of quality. Professor Ali Harlin, who is one of the leaders of the project, explained that the most important element in the new method for bio-based packaging is PGA polymer. Harlin said he had managed to come up with a new technique to produce PGA monomer glycolic acid from bio-based materials with better results than had been achieved so far.

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The PGA plastic is made from sugar and has excellent barrier properties, Harlin claimed. When applied as a film, it has unprecedented ability to prevent oxygen from penetrating within the package and can be perfect for protecting food from spoiling by creating what he called “modified atmosphere package.” Harlin stated that the new technology produces plastic packaging that is strong, grease resistant, vapor proof and airtight. If PGA is added to the traditional plastic packaging structure, it can improve those qualities in petroleum-based plastics as well.

The new type of plastic is between 20 and 30 percent stronger than PLA, which is the most popular biodegradable plastic on the market, and able to withstand much higher temperatures than PLA, Harlin explained. Generally, it takes less time to break down than PLA but if necessary its biodegradable qualities can be modified.

The material can also be used to make sugar-based plastic food trays, which are recyclable and can be broken down to sugar again if necessary. Food packaging technologies are evolving and the next generation is entering the market. They will help conserve oil and will be more effective in waste reduction and control, according to Harlin.

Global packaging firms have been facing criticism in recent years because of their heavy dependence on oil. It is estimated that as much as five percent of the world’s total global oil consumption is used by packaging producers and about 40 percent of all plastics are used in packaging. Developments in ethical consumption principles and a series of legislative reforms have tried to make the packaging industry more sustainable, but at the moment bio-based plastic accounts for just one percent of global plastic production, the Environment News Service said.

The VTT Research Center claimed that carbon dioxide emissions from bio-based plastics are up to 70 percent lower than those from oil-based plastics. If the industry shifts towards bio-based products, reducing oil consumption and carbon dioxide emissions, it could contribute to meeting the European Union goal for 2050 of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80 percent from the 1990 level.