Let’s face it, convenience is king. We’re more likely to recycle and compost if we have curbside service and if we forget our reusable grocery bags at home, we can buy more at the checkout counter. But the actual food we buy is typically wrapped or stored in plastic or polystyrene (PS) foam containers, be it fresh produce or fresh-food containers. FPInnovations would like to change that.
The company is working on a far-reaching research project to make fibre-based packaging as accessible, reliable, and affordable as plastic and PS foam for food industries serving consumers. The idea is if it’s convenient and cost-effective for industries to switch to fibre-based packaging, they will.
“We want to make a positive socio-economic and environmental impact on the single-use packaging industry,” says Tingjie (Gary) Li, an FPInnovations technology and process development scientist. “We’re looking at what we have already developed, such as lignin and cellulose filaments, and how we can increase their functionality to develop sustainable fibre-based packaging that meets the market requirements filled by single-use plastic products.”
The Next-Generation Packaging project is a collaborative one involving the pulp and paper and bio-sourced products sectors. “We’re focusing on a market-pull project, not a technology-push project,” says Ayse Alemdar-Thomson, a senior business intelligence scientist. “We’ve already identified commercial products on which to target our research and we’re going to the marketplace, talking to converters, consumers, and brand owners to understand the competitive landscape and technical needs to come up with solutions benefiting the entire value chain.”
The demand for responsible packaging comes from government policies as much as it does from consumers and retailers themselves. The business intelligence team recently commissioned an online survey of 3000 North American consumers about their single-use purchasing habits. Fifty-two per cent of respondents said they refrain from buying products packaged with PS foam or plastic. This is in step with a growing number of major retailers that have added sustainability to their business strategies, such as an iconic American fast-food restaurant, which has stopped using PS foam.
FPInnovations is focusing on three technology platforms to narrow the gap between plastic and fibre-based performance: stretchability, barrier properties, and the conversion process. Research demonstrates that a biomaterial-based coating can achieve a high level of water resistance, and a biomaterial film can be chemically modified to produce eco-friendly barriers for oil, grease, and oxygen.
Each material has unique properties and the Next-Generation Packaging researchers are combining them to develop fibre-based solutions that are biodegradable and replace petroleum-based coatings.
As for the conversion process, the end-use application must be similar to the existing plastic packaging converting process. “We can’t develop new materials and then have packaging converters change their equipment,” says Li. “Heat sealability is also important for converters in the plastic bag-making process.”
Target products include formable packages, paper cups, plastic clamshells, and multi-material laminates such as potato-chip bags. The sustainability team is looking at the regulatory compliance and compostability side of the equation, while the business development team is lining up industry support.
The trend of retailers and consumers reducing their use of PS foam and plastic is well established. FPInnovations is applying its substantial research capabilities to position its member companies to benefit from the growing movement.