Plastic packaging is everywhere, from toiletries to disposable coffee cups to fruit and vegetables. Of the 78 million tonnes of plastic produced for packaging each year, more than 30 % ends up polluting the environment, with much of it turning up in the ocean where it has a devastating effect on marine wildlife.
As the problems related to over-reliance on plastic become better-known, consumers are beginning to turn against single-use plastics – but their choices are limited by the materials chosen by major manufacturers in high-volume industries such as food and cosmetics.
While alternatives to plastic are available, as yet none seem to offer a full solution. Biodegradable bioplastics such as polylactide degrade too slowly and non-biodegradable bioplastics such as bio-PE leave behind microplastics that can’t be digested by naturally occurring organisms.
The EU-funded SULACHANGE project seeks to address this challenge by further developing and commercialising a microplastic-free and biodegradable material known as Sulapac, which provides the benefits of plastic without the waste problem, says project spokesperson Antti Valtonen of Finnish SME Sulapac, which developed the material.
‘Sulapac is made from sustainably sourced wood chips and renewable natural binders,’ says Valtonen. ‘It has a low carbon footprint and can be recycled as industrial compost. It outperforms other sustainable alternatives in terms of biodegradation speed, low carbon footprint and barrier properties.’
The company has a portfolio of existing, customisable boxes and jars made from Sulapac, but the material is also available to be licensed. Plastic manufacturers can use it in their existing injection moulding and extrusion production lines without major investment, to create packaging of virtually any shape or size, making the product globally scalable in a variety of industries.
Resistant to water, oil and oxygen, it is suitable today for mass manufacturing of rigid applications such as jars, and development with flexible applications such as tubes and lightweight packaging is ongoing, says Valtonen. Its carbon footprint is 62 % lower than that of traditional plastics, based on lifecycle analysis, and once it is no longer needed, it biodegrades completely, leaving behind no microplastic residue, the company claims.
Sulapac is currently working with a jewellery and silverware manufacturer and has already won an award for the gift packaging created together using the material. It also recently announced collaborations with a major Finnish food producer and a renewable materials company.
Seeking pioneering brands
The aim of the SULACHANGE project is to finalise the company’s product offering to capture the material’s full potential and prepare for worldwide market introduction.
‘We started with the cosmetics industry and are expanding now to foodstuff and pharma customers,’ says Valtonen. ‘We are looking for converters and forerunner brands to start using the Sulapac material. We will optimise our recipe and barrier coatings for high-volume industries, apply for the necessary certificates, carry out customer pilots and create a global licensing model.’
Sulapac was established in 2016 by two biochemists specialising in biomaterials. As a result of SULACHANGE, the company expects to grow to annual revenues of EUR 90 million in the next five years, says Valtonen.
Project acronym: SULACHANGE
Participants: Finland (Coordinator)
Project N°: 829681
Total costs: € 2 763 125
EU contribution: € 1 934 187
Duration: November 2018 to October 2020