Three resourceful companies are changing the rhetoric on waste by reimagining it as feedstock for innovative bio-based packaging materials.
Free trade coffee, biofuels, recycled plastics, non-GMO apples, conflict-free minerals, organic kale: What do all of these concepts have in common? They demonstrate the power of material feedstock in the market; that is, the idea that where something comes from impacts the sustainability of the product.
Why make plastics out of non-renewable fossil fuel when you can recycle? Why rely only on fossil fuel when you can synthesize biofuels from corn? Why buy coffee or diamonds from war-torn regions where political agendas are fueled by such commerce when you can sleep easy at night, knowing that tomorrow morning’s half-sweet non-fat caramel Macciato is coming from the most ethical of bean growers?!
I was at a sustainable packaging conference a couple years ago where I watched a presentation from the World Wildlife Fund. This was when I was first introduced to the ethical implications of making products like plastic and fuel out of food; how can you justify producing resource-intensive crops like corn or potatoes for anything but human consumption when so much of the worlds’ communities are starving, the WWF inquired? This isn’t a new argument but it is powerful; and, perhaps, helped lay the foundation for the new wave of biomaterials being constructed by several innovating companies.
What began as an investigation into “the future of sustainable materials” following the publication of “Yesterday’s ‘promising’ green materials: Where are they now?” has evolved into a discussion of how waste is being repackaged, literally. I am reminded now of Braungart’s and McDonough’s analogy of the cherry tree in “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things”:
“Consider the cherry tree: thousands of blossoms create fruit for birds, humans, and other animals, in order that one pit might eventually fall onto the ground, take root, and grow. Who would look at the ground littered with cherry blossoms and complain, "How inefficient and wasteful!" The tree makes copious blossoms and fruit without depleting its environment. Once they fall on the ground, their materials decompose and break down into nutrients that nourish microorganisms, insects, plants, animals, and soil. Although the tree actually makes more of its "product" than it needs for its own success in an ecosystem, this abundance has evolved (through millions of years of success and failure or, in business terms, R&D), to serve rich and varied purposes. In fact, the tree's fecundity nourishes just about everything around it.
“What might the human-built world look like if a cherry tree had produced it?”
Perhaps it might look like a world where methane gas is collected from water treatment facilities and made into bioplastics?
Maybe it looks like a world where waste protein from cheese production is the feedstock for packaging laminates?
How about a world where local waste is used as the feedstock for local packaging solutions?
What follows is a discussion of how three innovating companies are changing the rhetoric on waste, repackaged.
Packaging innovation: Re-engineer local waste cellulous fibers for local food packaging (see photo above)
Trial: Wheat-straw-based packaging
Zelfo Technology is focused on re-engineering natural cellulous fibers to enhance performance properties, like material strength. By opening and engineering the fibers using patented techniques, the surface area is increased, which facilitates hydrogen bonding and mechanical locking of the fibrous network. Instead of using chemical binders to create a package that uses low-grade waste, Zelfo Technology re-engineers what little cellulous there is so that the material binds together without the need for additional processing. Zelfo can use any source of natural fibers, including agricultural, industrial and post-consumer waste.
In 2014, Zelfo was approached by Hamburg-based company Bio-Lutions GmbH (formerly Upgrading GmbH). CEO Eduardo Gordillo challenged the company to produce a fully waste-based pulp formed package. The two companies entered into a development partnership and ran a number of trials with bagasse and wheat straw to assess the processing parameters. These proved successful and subsequent trials were run in China specially using modified pulp forming processing technology.
In the summer of 2015, similar packages were produced from tomato stems and hemp shiv. The hemp came from South Africa where the intention was to supply the grape-growing industry with hemp shiv packaging. The concept became “using local waste for local packaging requirements:” bagasse-based packaging for fruit growers in Brazil and tomato stalk-based packaging for tomato growers.
Managing director, Richard Hurding, explains, “The packaging market for growers of fruit and vegetables is based on remote suppliers dictating prices and supply. With our solution, an arrangement is established between BioLutions and the food growers who need or can supply other local users with packaging made from their residual material. The BioLutions plant converts the materials and delivers an economic and sustainable product to the on-site or local user.”
For Hurding, wherever there is a combination of agro industries that have waste and need packaging, the Zelfo Technology fiber based system that BioLutions offers can be implemented: “In the developed world, there is no such thing as ‘waste’ agricultural materials as they all have a market value, whether it be for animal feed, bedding or bio-fuels,” Hurding says. “The main thing is to upcycle the material with a higher value than the current end uses offer. This means looking at products that upgrade residuals; not just taking them as they are.”
Next: Extract protein from agro-food waste for bioplastic production