6 sustainable packaging solutions you should know about

– From established players to research institutes

The widespread use of plastics in the 1950’s revolutionized consumerism and was hailed as a wondrous material. In little more than a century, plastic has gone from being a hero packaging material one of the world’s greatest environmental problems. Plastic now suffocates our planet, contaminating ecosystems and posing a significant threat to wildlife and human health.

The amount of plastic packaging thrown away every single year is enough in length to circle the globe four times over. According to the EPA, approximately 70% of plastics in the US are destined to landfill, where they will take from 10 to 1000 years to decompose. By 2050, its projected there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

This strong growth of plastic pollution is causing global alarm and governments are now getting involved to ban its use. The most impactful ban on plastic came in 2018 when China, who have imported almost half of the world’s plastic refuse since 1992, banned 24 types of plastic scraps from entering its borders. Also, in October 2018, the EU Parliament voted for the complete ban on a range of single-use plastics across the region in a bid to stop pollution of the oceans. Companies who fail to get involved in this sustainable revolution will inevitably be faced with both social and reputational backlash.

Food and beverage packaging accounts for almost two-thirds of total packaging waste. As consumers become more educated on the impact plastics have on the environment, they’re keen to hold businesses and their packaging standards to account. Big players are now more focused than ever on producing and packaging their products more responsibly.

Let’s have a look at 6 sustainable packaging solutions, from established players to research institutes and start-ups, providing options to the food and beverage industry.

1. VolCat (2019)


Who is involved?

IBM researchers have developed a pressure reactor that uses a catalytic chemical process to digest plastics into a substance which can be directly used to create new plastic products.

What is the technology?

VolCat begins by heating PET and ethylene glycol in a reactor with the catalyst. After depolymerization is complete, the catalyst is removed by distillation from the reactor using the heat from the reaction. The solution is then filtered, purified and cooled, and the solid monomer product is then recovered by filtration. The recovered liquid, along with the catalyst, is reintroduced into the depolymerization reactor in an energy-efficient cycle. By heat and pressure, the catalyst is able to digest and clean the ground-up plastic. The machine does not require any sorting or washing before breaking down the plastics. The usable matter (called a monomer) takes the form of a white powder, which can be fed directly into the polyester reactor to make new plastics.

Why you should know about it?

Before now, mechanical recycling could only be used on clear, pre-cleaned containers. Advancements, like VolCat, will make recycling PET plastic more efficient and more versatile in treating more than one material type. Future recycling will break down both colored and clear plastics, as well as dirty and clean containers, producing at the end a 100% recyclable product.

2. ChemCycling (2018)

Who is involved?

BASF, the largest chemical producer in the world, announced it has for the first time manufactured products based on chemically recycled plastic waste through its ChemCycling project.

What is the technology?

BASF reutilizes plastic waste that is currently not recycled. Using a thermochemical process, these plastics produce syngas or oil. This recycled material is used as inputs in BASF’s production which partially replacing fossil resources. At the beginning of the production chain, BASF feeds this oil derived from plastic waste by an oiling process into the Production Verbund. They have partnered with Recenso GmbH in Germany to get this feedstock for the pilot products. As an alternative, syngas made from plastic waste can also be used. The steam cracker is the starting point for Verbund production. It breaks down or “cracks” this raw material at temperatures of around 850 degrees Celsius. The primary outputs of the process are ethylene and propylene. These basic chemicals are used in the Verbund to make numerous chemical products. Under the mass balance approach, the share of recycled raw material can be mathematically allocated to the final certified product. Each customer can select the allocated percentage of recycled material.

Why you should know about it?

BASF’s ChemCycling technology manufactures plastics of high quality and hygiene standards which are key factors for big players looking for recycling solutions.

Start-ups focused on biodegradable solutions

3. Loop™ Industries (2015)

Who is involved?

Loop™ Industries is a Canadian startup based in Quebec, founded by Daniel Solomita.

What is the technology?

Their technology uses a process called depolymerization that requires no heat or pressure. This process produces Dimethyl Terephthalate (DMT) and Mono Ethylene Glycol (MEG) from waste plastic feedstock’s. This includes all forms of waste PET plastic, including polyester fibers, colored plastic, and opaque plastic. They then remove any impurities and reconstruct the commodity chemicals into Loop™ PET plastic made from 100% re-used materials.

Why you should know about it?

Their packaging is of superior quality, meeting FDA requirements for food contact. As a result many big players are partnering with Loop™ including Danone Evian, Pepsico and Coca-Cola Europe.

4. Sulapac (2017)

Who is involved?

Sulapac is a Finnish startup founded by biochemists specializing in biomaterials Suvi Haimi and Laura Kyllönen.

What is the technology?

The basis of Sulapac’s innovation is it replaces traditional fossil based material with one that doesn’t pollute the environment. Their products are made of FSC-certified wood chips and biodegradable natural binders. The material has plastic-like properties like water and oil resistance and it doesn’t penetrate oxygen. The sustainable packaging has many possible uses from cosmetics to foodstuff to gift boxes and more. The latest development is a microplastic-free, marine degradable and mass producible straw. The naturally occurring micro-organisms can digest and transform the straw into CO2, H20 and biomass.

Why you should know about it?

Sulapac is able to compete with the cost of plastic and also can be mass-produced with the same equipment as plastic.

Research institutes

5. bioORMOCER ® (2017)

Who is involved?

The Fraunhofer Institute of Silicate Research has been developing high-barrier coatings based on materials with glass-like structures, called ORMOCER, for several years prior. However since this development is not bio-based or biodegradable, they have recently developed a new class of biodegradable coatings called bioORMOCER®, which provide compostable alternatives to non-recyclable, multi-layer packaging.

What is the technology?

BioORMOCER® is a biodegradable material class which combines inorganic-organic materials with specifically modified biopolymers. To make this material they re-use organic waste for example from food production, to synthesize the basic raw materials for the bioORMOCER®. In essence, the materials development takes place through the exchange of non-biodegradable organic components of fossil origin with biologically degradable components of biological origin.

Why you should know about it?

This biodegradable packaging won the “New Plastic Innovation Prize” in 2018 which has allowed them to participate in a twelve-month accelerator program.

6. Georgia Institute of Technology (2018)

Who is involved?

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology developed a flexible plastic material made from natural, compostable material in a project led by J. Carson Meredith.

What is the technology?

The Georgia Tech formulation, described in the journal ACS Sustainable Chemistry and Engineering, is made by spraying multiple layers of chitin from crab shells and cellulose from trees to form a flexible film – similar to flexible PET plastic packaging. This material demonstrated a 67 percent reduction in oxygen permeability and has the potential to replace plastic packaging.

Why you should know about it?

Although this packaging innovation is very much in its early stages of development, the materials they use are widely available and in low demand. Tests show the packaging is at least as effective at keeping products fresh as high-grade PETs and more effective than low-grade PETs.

The search is on for sustainable packaging solutions

Established manufacturers are now setting ambitious future goals to reduce or completely remove plastic packaging from their business ecosystem and replace it with a sustainable alternative. This will hasten many new questions and challenges. As a result, technological solutions like the ones mentioned above are gaining interest by these big players as consumers become more aware of plastics negative environmental impacts. Fearful for their reputations, big companies are re-shaping and re-thinking their business models.