By Gloria Pellares
In an understated brick building in Espoo, Southern Finland, a scientist holds a transparent film against the light. It looks like so many films used to wrap food leftovers, line cereal boxes and seal milk cartons. But this film was produced from side streams of the paper-recycling industry, instead of oil.
Across Europe, facilities like the VTT Technical Research Center of Finland are racing to develop and bring to scale affordable, performant alternatives to fossil fuel-based plastics. They are using sources such as agricultural and forestry waste, or harnessing fungi and marine bacteria as living factories of chemicals for the products of the future.Since the 1950s, the world has produced an estimated 9.2 billion tonnes of plastics, of which 7bn are now waste that will take between 20 and 500 years to decompose. Most of that waste is incinerated, resulting in carbon emissions that worsen global heating. Biodegradable materials could replace conventional plastics and advance a zero-waste economy, but they need to overcome obstacles first, such as price.
Producers are now turning to ‘bio-based’ materials to boost the sustainability of their packaging. These materials are made wholly or partially with natural nano and microparticles such as fibres or natural rubber. The market for these materials is expected to rise rapidly; according to data from European Bioplastics, the world’s capacity to produce bioplastics in 2026 is set to be triple of what was produced in 2021. That year also saw the EU’s Single-Use Plastics Directive of 2019 comes into force, putting pressure on companies to remove packaging altogether, or start finding alternatives.
To speed up progress research institutes and partner companies from nine European countries have teamed up under the EU-funded INN-PRESSME project. They are sharing facilities and expertise to take new-generation materials from lab benches, testing them in pre-commercial pilot lines, and then to the large-scale industrial processes such as cars, shoe soles and tubes for cosmetics to foam boxes, printable inks and smart labels for food.
“Bio-based materials can reduce Europe’s dependency on oil and speed up the transition towards a circular, waste-free economy,” says scientist Ulla Forsström from VTT, which coordinates the initiative. “By joining forces, we can improve, test and bring innovative solutions to the market, faster and with fewer risks.”
FROM NANOPARTICLES TO MASS PRODUCTION
A first objective is to enhance the properties of new materials to match and even surpass the features that made fossil-based plastics an essential component of daily lives: durability, strength, lightness–and affordable prices.
Scientists are fine-tuning formulations and harnessing tiny particles of natural origin—cellulose nanofibrils and nanocrystals, graphene and carbon-based spheres– to enhance the properties of materials sourced from biomass. What those nanoparticles have in common is their size: they are smaller than 100 nanometres (a human hair is around 80,000 nanometres thick).
“For example, we can combine tiny flax or hemp fibers with bio-based materials to create alternatives to oil-based polymers that can be extensively reused and recycled,” says Christoph Mack, an expert from the Fraunhofer Institute for Chemical Technology in Pfinztal, Germany.
The next step is adapting industrial processing methods to produce bio-based materials on a large scale. The researchers need to consider each part of the supply chain from raw materials to end product. The project is running nine test cases, and later this year will launch an open call to support small and medium-sized companies in piloting their innovations.
TURNING BIO-WASTE TO VALUE
One of the test cases underway at VTT in Finland is looking into alternatives to plastic films and cellophane, whose manufacturing requires chemicals such as carbon disulfide, an air pollutant.
The research centre is using waste from pulp mills and paper- and textile-recycling plants to create regenerated cellulose film. It is transparent, biodegradable,water resistant, and can be used stand-alone or as a coating for paper.
VTT scientist Vesa Kunnari notes that the pilot line is modular to make it easier, quicker and cheaper to test different source materials. “For example, the side streams of a food manufacturing process could be used to create packaging for the food itself,” he says.
The equipment sits next to a surface-treatment pilot line, which companies can use to test new foam, spray and road-coating solutions for packaging, flexible electronics and non-woven materials. “Importantly, they can do it using only small amounts of material, which is essential to keep costs down,” says VTT expert Vinay Kumar, who mentions applications in the medical, chemical and textile industries.
Another product that experts are looking to take to the next level are transport boxes made from bio-foam beads. “Like the ones food delivery services use to keep your pizza warm,” says Mack from the Fraunhofer Institute.
Mack’s team is working to reinforce bio-based beads with natural fibres and anti-microbial coatings, then produce expandable granules “comparable to popcorn” that can be moulded into 3D objects. For example, impact-proof, insulating containers and sports goods such as balancing boards and fascia rolls.
“The ultimate goal is to replace oil-based materials with fully reusable, recyclable and biodegradable alternatives that result from sustainably-sourced biological materials and processes,” says Mack. “Materials that make sense from both an environmental and an economic perspective.”