With the launch of an oil-based biodegradable film Natural Flexible has added to its portfolio, through which it hopes to conquer the emerging market.
The UK-based company this year began offering food companies Supereco, a biodegradable oriented polypropylene (OPP) film designed to provide barrier properties similar to its petroleum-based counterparts,
Over the past five years packaging suppliers have been introducing various forms of biodegradable plastics. These are made from a variety of plants, in the main corn, in response to projections that consumers and recycling regulations will drive demand for environmentally-friendly packaging.
Some companies predict that the market will grow by about 20 per cent a year, and the products are an alternative to petroleum-based packaging such as the widely-used polyethylene terephthalate (PET).
OPP is called the workhorse of flowwrap packaging, frequently used in laminates due to a printability, clarity and moisture barrier. However its gas barrier is poor, limiting its applications.
Natural Flexible felt it could provide Supereco as an alternative for manufacturers that use OPP and whose products are not suited to existing forms of biodegradable packaging.
Natural Flexible is a subsidiary of National Flexible, one of the UK's largest distributors of flexible packaging films supplied in reel format. The company was created to help National Flexible target what it hopes will be a growing and lucrative market.
George Slack, Natural Flexible's sales and marketing director, said the company has been rolling out a number of materials in a bid to offer each segment of the food market a biodegradable or compostable alternative.
He notes that other materials in the market, which the company also offers, are not suitable for such products as bread and cakes. However Supereco has the same barrier properties as standard OPP, but with a special additive that allows it to biodegrade.
"It's not the holy grail of biodegradable packaging but it ticks some boxes," he told FoodProductionDaily.com yesterday.
The company claims that Supereco offers the same performance levels as standard OPP at a competitive cost. The material breaks down to CO2, water, and a small amount of biomass.
The company is in particular targeting the UK market, where 74 per cent of waste ends up in landfill, compared to sending it for incineration, recycling or composting. This rate is one of the highest in the EU. By comparison Swedes send about 14 per cent of their waste to landfills, and the Dutch a low three per cent.
Biodegradable packaging fits into five categories. Biopolymers made out of plant materials such as starch, cellulose or lignin form one type currently on the market.
Another type uses a chemical polymerisation process to transform renewable raw materials such as corn into a biodegradable biopolymer such as polylactic acid (PLA).
Meanwhile biodegradable polymers such as polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA), PHV and PHB are produced by the actions of genetically modified micro-organisms.
A fourth class is made up of synthetic polymers.
Supereco fits into the fifth class of biodegradable polymers. These are based on fossil fuels but have additives that promote their biodegradability.
Slack says the company has the capacity to supply 9,000 tonnes of Supereco a year, produced from a plant in Turkey. The material is currently being tested as packaging for a number of food products. He would not say what companies were using Supereco.
PLA, the biggest competitor in the biodegradable packaging market, has the disadvantage that it will not biodegrade in landfill, while Supereco will, Slack said. PLA has held appeal within the packaging industry because it is biodegradable when composted, helping food packagers to meet EU waste targets.
He also claimed that fewer fossil fuels are needed to produce Supereco compared to PLA.
Natural Flexible is part of a growing wave of suppliers attempting to meet what the industry forecasts will be a growth phase for biodegradable packaging. Up till now retailers have been behind the push to make the switch.
Over the past few years a number of major packaging manufacturers have created biodegradable products.
One is Amcor, which has teamed up with Plantic Technologies to develop a biodegradable, flexible plastic packaging for confectionary.
Others include US-based NatureWorks, part of Cargill. NatureWorks is one the main mover behind the biodegradable packaging trend with its introduction of polylactic acid (PLA), a corn-based polymer.
Danish-based Danisco announced this year that it has produced a plasticiser from hardened castor oil and acetic acid. It is colourless, odorless and completely biodegradable.
Another company competing in the biodegradable packaging market is UK-based Stanelco. The company markets a natural, biodegradable food packaging based on starch, called Starpol 2000.
Germany-based BASF has also announced it will launch a biodegradable plastic based on renewable raw materials in a bid to meet what it believes will be a growing demand for environmentally-friendly packaging. The company's Ecovio plastic is made up of 45 per cent PLA from NatureWorks. The other component is BASF's existing biodegradable plastic Ecoflex, which is derived from petrochemicals.
BASF forecasts that the world market for biodegradable plastics will grow by more than 20 per cent per year.
Companies like US-based Naturally Iowa have been using PLA for packaging products like organic milk.
Retailers like Delhaize in Belgium and Auchan in France have also been testing PLA for various food packaging.
Last year Sainsbury's became the first major retailer in the UK to shift to the large scale use of biodegradable packaging. The UK retailer said the move will cut 3,550 tonnes of plastic used on about 500 of its private label products and reduce rubbish collected for landfill.
By September 2007, Sainsbury's plans to have converted all its ready meals packaging. Organic sausages and organic whole birds will be converted by October 2007.
Sainsbury's also produced packaging guidelines for its suppliers so that more food is packaged in compostable or recyclable material.
Demand for bioplastics in Europe experienced its first boom last year, according to a survey by the European Bioplastics Association, which has about 70 members. Currently bioplastics account for less than one percent of the European plastics market.