The plastics sector is currently one of the largest in the world. Despite the global impact suffered by Covid-19, in Europe the market reached an estimated turnover value of 15.8 billion euros in 2020.
The technological advances made in the plastics sector since its inception have made it possible to increase society’s quality of life in terms of safety, hygiene, and well-being. Its inclusion in applications as relevant to daily life as packaging, automotive or construction has allowed a significant reduction in the weight of final products, with the consequent savings in costs and energy consumed during production. There is no doubt about the positive impact they have whether we are aware of their presence or not. However, one of the drawbacks they present is their origin and their end of life. In this regard, Europe has adopted a firm commitment to deal with plastic waste, through new policies and regulations aimed at achieving a modern and competitive economy, with growth independent of the use of fossil resources and that meets the needs of all citizens or regions.
The Green Deal or Green Pact is a framework that includes different plans such as the ‘European Climate Law’, or the first European Strategy for plastics. It covers all sectors of the industry, and compiles a series of actions to promote the transition to a clean and circular economy, reducing pollution and reversing the loss of biodiversity.
Under Directive 2019/904 on the reduction of the impact of certain plastic products in the packaging sector on the environment, Europe has focused on single-use plastics. This is the case of containers made of expanded polystyrene, or polypropylene, which can be found in fish and meat trays, or in disposable kitchenware (cutlery, plates, etc…). This regulation makes the change in the paradigm of plastic effective, incorporating from innovation new materials and new recycling technologies.
Circular solutions: The path of biobased and biodegradable plastics
One of the most exploited alternatives to date has been biobased plastics, which have a sustainable origin without affecting subsequent transformation or recycling processes. It is a very diversified market, which has been growing progressively and is expected to reach 2% of global plastic production in 2023. However, as mentioned, Europe has imposed restrictions related to both the production and marketing of these materials according to their application and nature. That is why additional efforts are being invested in R&D to encourage the use of coal from renewable sources and minimize the amount of waste in landfills and oceans. All this without giving up the effective properties of known plastics, such as their mechanical resistance, transparency, or impermeability to gas or water.
To implement a complete circular economy model, the biobased plastic concept must be accompanied by a recyclable or rapidly biodegradable end-of-life. This means that not only the raw material of the plastic must be renewable, but also that when its useful life ends it can be returned to the transformation chain to become a new product, or decompose without causing harmful effects on the environment.
However, biodegradable plastics are not applicable in all sectors. The industry requires materials with high properties (durability, mechanical or thermal resistance) that are not compatible with progressive decomposition. That is why other applications, such as packaging or the agricultural industry, dominate the market in this subsector, covering 59% and 13% of market capacity, respectively.
R&D initiatives in packaging and agriculture to comply with the Green Deal
Following the guidelines of the Green Pact, Tecnopackaging together with its parent technology center, AITIIP, focus their line of work on the development of new materials and innovative polymeric products and their transformation processes. Its activities have focused on the recommendations issued by the European Commission (on the applications of sustainable agricultural and packaging products. For example, bags for fruits and vegetables, or for organic waste, mulch film for greenhouses and crops, or seedbeds.
Tecnopackaging’s focus on the use of biologically based raw materials, and the research work it is carrying out on strategies to enhance biodegradability has allowed its immersion in several collaborative proposals financed by the European Commission.
An example of this are the FISH4FISH (EMFF-BlueEconomy-2018-863697) and UNLOCK (H2020-BBI-JTI-2020-101023306) projects, in which Tecnopackaging collaborates, focused on the revaluation of marine biomass waste and industry by-products poultry, to extract substances with antimicrobial properties, or nutrients for the soil. FISH4FISH works with chitinolytic derivatives from fish waste and UNLOCK with keratin from bird feathers. These extracts will serve to create new biobased and biodegradable materials, which will be used respectively in the packaging and agricultural industries (Illustration 1).
As an example of resources extracted from vegetable crops, the CRESCERE project, financed by the CIEN Strategic Projects program (Center for Industrial Technological Development E.P.E.), and conceived under the Strategy on Biodiversity and the “Farm to fork” Strategy, central elements of the Green Pact, stands out. European. It addresses the design of a range of biobased products, made from legume extract, such as trays, beverage containers or sustainable inks (Illustration 2), added to the implementation of end-of-life strategies, such as enzymatic depolymerization.
Following this last line of research, the RevoluZion project (PLEC2021-00818) in which the AITIIP Technological Center participates, focuses its research on the reconstruction of ancestral enzymatic genetic structures to favor the on-demand degradation of plastic products in different controlled environments (composting faster industrial and domestic) and uncontrolled (soil, freshwater, marine). That is, enzymes that are included directly in the plastic and are capable of digesting it.
There is no doubt that sustainability already governs industrial activity, and that it is urgent to adopt new lines of R&D as a strategic axis. Tecnopackaging and its parent company are one step ahead to revolutionize, through innovation, the market of the present and the future.