EU funds nano packaging research

By Ahmed ElAmin

- Last updated on GMT

UK supermarket chain Sainsbury's is part of an EU-funded project to
develop biodegradable packaging using nanotechnology.

Over the past five years packaging suppliers have been introducing various forms of biodegradable packaging, based on projections that consumers and recycling regulations will drive demand for environmentally-friendly packaging. Supermarket chains, such as Wal-Mart, have also been driving the change throughout its suppliers. The EU project, SustainPack, aims to create new environmentally-friendly fibre-based packaging to replace oil-based plastics. The fibres are obtained from natural, sustainable raw materials, such as wood. They can then be modified using nanotechnology techniques to provide the needed qualities, said Chris Breen, a research from Sheffield Hallam University, one of the project partners. "Developing sustainable packaging that can compete effectively with packaging derived from petrochemical-based polymers is extremely challenging,"​ he said. One of SustainPack's project goals is to increase the dry, moist, and wet strengths of fibre-based packaging materials, allowing the design of more cost-effective packaging by using less material. Researchers have set a target of reducing material use by 30 per cent. At Sheffield Hallam work is underway on the design of nanoclay particles, which are expected to significantly improve the barrier properties and mechanical strength of the new biopolymer films and coatings. "One of the more unusual modifiers that we are using to make the nanoclays more compatible with, and disperse throughout the biopolymer films, to effectively repel water molecules is a molecule called chitosan, which is derived from the shells of crustaceans, such as crabs and lobsters,"​ said Breen. SustainPack researchers said they are currently developing some sample packages, which they hope to demonstrate to some of the project's industrial partners, including Sainsbury's and Smurfit-Kappa. The four year research programme has a budget of €36m, about half of which comes from an EU research programme. The SustainPack project brings together a consortium of 35 participants from 13 countries, representing packaging research associations, academia and industry. In 2002, EU countries generated about 66 million tonnes of packaging waste. In the UK, about 28 million tonnes of waste every year is landfilled, a figure which is expected to double over the next 20 years. Smurfit-Kappa is one of Europe's largest manufacturers of packaging products.

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