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New material options for the packaging lifecycle

New material options for the packaging lifecycle
Laszlo Horvath, assistant professor, Virginia Tech

How about using super-strong, Kevlar-like nanocrystals derived from cellulose to strengthen pallets? That’s the kind of alternative, renewable material that Laszlo Horvath, assistant professor, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, has been researching over the past 10 years. Horvath shares his thoughts on the topic in this exclusive interview, especially toward the use of atypical materials that hold promise for use in boxes, pallets and even gel capsules.

What is your background in packaging and in renewables?

Horvath: I have been working with renewable materials for about 10 years. My Ph.D research focused on the development of genetically modified aspen trees for bioenergy and biocomposite applications. As director of the Center for Packaging and Unit Load Design, my current research focuses on two major areas:

  1. The development of natural composites for distribution packaging applications; and
  2. To understand the interaction between the components of unit loads that knowledge will help us to better optimize wood pallets and packages that will reduce the fiber consumption used for packaging materials.

 What sparked your interest in these materials?

Horvath: What is great in renewable materials such as trees and plants that they are continuously reproducible without depleting our natural resources. The packaging industry, especially the distribution packaging side, is heavily using renewable materials. Currently, 92 percent of all pallets used globally are made of wood and the most common shipping unit is made of corrugated board.

However, there are still a lot of opportunities for new developments. Due to sanitary issues, we are using a fair amount of plastic packaging materials that are mainly produced from fossil fuels. Although plastics made from fossil fuel seems like a good idea, nowadays, due to its non-renewable nature, our supplies are limited.

In addition, using fossil fuel-based materials without proper recycling methods could increase the adverse effects of global warming. Besides, the low stiffness of plastic packaging materials create a lot of problems such as unit load and package failure, and unit load instability during the distribution.

Using renewable materials to exchange or reinforce fossil fuel based plastics has a lot of potential. If we generate greater demand for plant based materials then it will encourage farmers to plant more trees or plants that will potentially reduce the effects of global warming.

What kind of work is the university doing in this area?

Horvath: Our department has been researching the application of renewable materials for more than 40 years.

Since the department was established, we have been focusing on the optimization of wood-based packaging materials such as pallets and corrugated boxes. We have multiple projects that are focusing on understanding the interactions between wooden pallets and corrugated boxes. With better understanding ongoing interactions, we will be able to reduce the amount of fiber used for packaging materials.

One of the other areas that we are focusing on is the development of bioplastic films for packaging applications. The most recent material that we are investigating is polylactic acid (PLA) that is derived from the byproducts of corn production. It is a great material with a lot of potential, but it also has disadvantages that need to be worked out such as low stiffness and rigidity.  

We also focus on the development of plant-based gel capsules for drug delivery applications. The development of plant-based gel capsules are important because of the recent concerns related to diseases spread by animals.

In our distribution research center, called the Center for Packaging and Unit Load Design, we have been working with companies to help them develop and evaluate their pallet and packaging designs.

During the evaluations, we observed that plastic pallets have a major disadvantage and that is their low stiffness and extensive time dependent creep. It is a current trend, to use fiberglass or metal inserts to reinforce plastic pallets; however, there are a lot of concerns related to application of fiberglass in a distribution environment.

To create a more environmentally friendly and sustainable reinforcement for plastic pallets, my research area focuses on the development of natural fiber reinforces plastics where cellulose nanocrystals will be used to reinforce the mechanical properties of plastic pallets. Nanocrystals are derived from plants and have similar properties to Kevlar that makes them an idea candidate for plastic reinforcement.

 How would you characterize the growth of these materials for packaging?

Horvath: The sustainable packaging industry has been growing significantly in the recent years and it is projected to grow to $244 billion by 2018. I’m expecting a lot of exciting developments in the area of bioplastics and the development of new plant based packaging materials. Due to the growing environmental cautiousness of the customers, I am expecting a rapid growth in the use of renewable materials in the next five years.

Which alternative material do you feel is the most underutilized at this point for packaging?

Horvath: Lignin is a chemical in wood that is currently removed during the paper-making process. The resulting material is called black liquor. Currently, black liquor is used to generate heat for the paper-making process. However, due to the unique structure of lignin, it has a potential to be used for a wide range products such as plastics, chemicals products, and even carbon fibers. Lignin currently has a limited utilization in the packaging industry such as using it to improve the barrier and mechanical properties of starch based film or creating biodegradable thermoplastics out of lignin derivatives.

What material holds the most promise?

Horvath: Bioplastics derived from lignin and using cellulose to reinforce plastics has the highest potential.

What alternative material impresses you?

Horvath:  One of the most interesting materials for me is a protective foam cushioning produced from the mix of wood chips and a special strain of mushroom. It is currently produced by Sealed Air and used to package Dell computers (see Bio-based protective packaging  and Think like champions).

Finally, what advice do you have for brand owners?

Horvath: I would advise the brand owners to follow developments in renewable materials. Although the cost of some of the applications is high, there are a lot of solutions that are cost competitive. For example, utilizing molded pulp containers to exchange the plastic container for detergents or utilizing mushroom based foam product to protect high value electronics. New research projects are always underway to create technology that can significantly increase the sustainability of existing packaging solutions.

Laszlo Horvath is one of the speakers at the upcoming SouthPack Learning Labs as part of the SouthPack tradeshow running April 15 and 16. Horvath will present on the topic of New Packaging Materials & Sustainability Considerations for the Entire Product Lifecycle on Wednesday April 16 at 1:00PM to 1:30PM.

Click here to learn more about this and other SouthPack Learning Labs education sessions.

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