University of Pittsburgh
Innovation Prize Circular Materials Challenge winner
Circular Materials Challenge winner
Category 2: Combining materials that nature can handle
The VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland has created a compostable multi-layer material from agricultural and forestry by-products, which could be used to package products like muesli, nuts, and cheese.
The VTT material solution looks like plastic and performs like plastic, but comes from Nature’s own resources. It can be made from the very same material as a regular piece of paper as it uses cellulose-based raw materials like wood. It can also be made from fast-growing plants like rice straw and sugar cane tops, recycled fibres, textile waste, and agricultural residues. Cellulose is inherently safe, renewable, recyclable and biodegradable. Thanks to its good barrier properties against gases, grease, mineral oils and moisture, VTT’s material is well-suited for many food packaging applications. These include: snack bags and stand-up pouches for dry goods such as cereal and nuts; a flexible packaging for air-sensitive products like chocolate, biscuits, and thin cuts of meat or cheese; and potentially some liquids and moist food. In theory, such cellulose-derived packaging could replace up to 15% of the current plastic barrier film market.
The VTT material is built from two sorts of transparent wood cellulose: a fibrous cellulose (HefCel); and a plastic type cellulose (MMCC). These two materials have complementary barrier properties and VTT has combined them into a compostable three-layer film, which looks and performs like plastic but is entirely bio based and compostable. The films are processed in a way that does not introduce any unwanted or toxic chemicals.
Prof., Dr. Ali Harlin, Research Professor for Biomass Processing and Products research area at VTT
VTT’s bio-based solution comes from decades of research, experience, and knowhow in lignocellulosic (biomass) raw materials. These materials are very suitable for packaging and are already widely used in cardboard. As there are no well-functioning bio-based materials with good barrier properties available in the food packaging market, we started to investigate the potential of cellulose for this purpose.
Cellulose – the most abundant renewable polymer on the planet – provides an environmentally benign alternative to fossil fuel based multi-layered plastic packaging. The major issue we faced was the moisture sensitivity of fibrous cellulose films. To overcome this, we created a plastic-like cellulose film with excellent moisture barrier properties. By combining the two, we obtained a unique material with the required properties. Once commercialised, cellulose-based films have the potential to diminish the use of fossil-based materials, reduce the pollution of waterways by microplastics, and mitigate food losses.
The Accelerator Programme is an amazing opportunity for us to get multidisciplinary insights to develop and improve our packaging material. Its next phase helps us scale up faster and be better able to provide an environmentally feasible food-packaging alternative to both emerging and industrialised markets.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation works to accelerate the transition to a circular economy. We develop and promote the idea of a circular economy, and work with business, academia, policymakers, and institutions to mobilise systems solutions at scale, globally.
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