An EU project has successfully developed a semi-industrial pilot line for the production of biodegradable 3D-shaped packaging from renewable raw materials such as starch and water.
The REnewable BIO-polymer FOAMs (ReBioFoam) project, led by Novamont and involving 10 partners from eight countries, lasted four years and was completed last month.
It involved eight work packages from initial analysis of the market to a life cycle analysis (LCA) of the new material to identify the added value in terms of environmental sustainability.
Federica Mastroianni, project funding officerat Novamont, said the process that led to the production of the bio-foams falls under formulation and processing and microwave assisted expansion and moulding.
She described formulation and processing as the optimisation and then the extrusion of the base materials and subsequent conditioning, in order to produce pellets with specific parameters tailor made for the following expansion phase.
The expansion of the biopolymers was obtained using microwave technology, which takes advantage of the inner water content of the material as expanding agent, she explained.
“The microwave technology developed by the project takes advantage of the inner water content of the material as expanding agent,” Mastroianni told FoodProductionDaily.com.
“During the expansion phase, pellets are transferred into a microwave-transparent mould and further processed into a microwave at controlled temperature.
“Rapid dielectric heating of the pellets causes the pellets to foam in the mould, thus resulting in a 3-D shaped foamed product.”
The project identified that expanded polystyrene (EPS), polyurethane (EPU), polyethylene (EPE) and polypropylene (EPP) represent the most popular moulded cushion packaging materials applied for transport packaging applications.
The issue was that the use of the polymer foams implies environmental concerns because of their non-renewable fossil raw material resources, the use of greenhouse gases as blowing agents, their non-biodegradable and non-compostable nature, the short life of cushion packaging products and the cost-ineffectiveness of their recycling.
“The REBIOFOAM material represents a sustainable solution alternative to expanded materials traditionally applied for cushion transport packaging, since it offers innovative disposal options.
“It is in fact fully compostable according to CEN Standard on Biodegradability and Compostability (EN 13432:2002) and it is also compatible with the paper recycling stream (the biopolymer is obtained through a highly efficient process which modifies the physical properties in the structure of starch, while preserving its natural characteristics, thus making it easy to recycle).”
The next step could be the implementation of the proposed process to an industrial scale, she concluded.