From multiple to single-layer food packages
Chemical startup Boostani has been successful in experiments to create plastic packaging intended to replace 70% of multi-layer packaging for perishable foods such as meat and cheese. Not to mention that it is both sanitary and yields the same results for product shelf life. That sharply decreases the required number of extruders, makes recycling possible and reduces the use of resources by one third.
Those who have found their way to other continents in their travels were probably surprised that in some countries, plastic waste can be seen everywhere: swirling, drifting and washing ashore. This waste stream was a true thorn in the side for Margareta Merka when she set up solar panelsystems in Tanzania with her business SolarGrid Tanzania. Having completed her studies in plastic engineering, she came upon the idea to do her doctoral project on developing more sustainable, biodegradable, organic plastics. This would at least make recycling a little bit simpler. In addition to her doctoral research at Maastricht University, she was able to found the business Boostani in March 2017 with the support of private investors and Brightlands Innovation Factory. Since then, three academic experts have become involved.
Up to twelve layers
Let’s start with the toughest situation first: meat packaging. Due to the expiry time and risk of bacterial infection, meat packaging consists of up to twelve layers of plastic. Each of them has their own strong suits. From technological standpoint, it is an incredible feat, but a true disaster for recycling, because they are nearly impossible to separate afterwards, let alone to reuse, due to the enormous amount of energy that separating the thin layers (around 10 micrometres) costs. Twelve layers also means twelve extruders, which increases the use of resources.
Boostani is developing a completely recyclable solution for this. At least, it is a solution for two of the plastics that make up two-thirds of the market: polypropylene and polyethylene. Instead of twelve different layers, only one type of plastic is used. But how? The key lies in the use of special additives and the process technology. The additives consist of a biodegradable, organic material. They form a type of barrier against substances that try to penetrate the layers. Merka estimates that, with her solution, up to 30% of the currently required quantity of plastic will no longer be needed. This also reduces transport and energy costs.
Another breakthrough is the process technology. By using a special extrusion technique, the material is given a homogeneous profile. This technique is necessary to prevent agglomeration for the purposes of ensuring homogeneous properties. Since this process is comparable to standard processes, compounders do not need to invest additional money. Furthermore, the materials used all meet FDA requirements.
This solution does not provide the answer for everything. In the laboratory, the young entrepreneurs succeeded in combining 70% of the packaging into a single layer, but work is still being done on the remaining 30 percent. Furthermore, scaling up is still an issue. Tests are under way at the institute for bio-based materials in Aken and the PhD students are able to use the extrusion machines located at Brightlands Chemelot. The company is still in search of compounders who want to test the product.
Funding is a challenge as well. The principle works. The goal is to create a 100% match for the properties of the multi-layer packaging. As of now, there are samples that achieve 70%. Until mid-2018, Boostani will be trying to develop a reproduceable prototype with the aid of a grant that the company received from the Limburg government in mid-October. At the beginning of 2019, the business will be able to approach its first clients. For financing the larger machines, the company is considering Business Angels or another form of private funding. Ultimately, Boostani may end up building the thousand-tonne factory itself or sell the licencing to the technology: it all depends on the business model.
This article was published in Vakblad Voedingsindustrie, february 2018