UBC Researchers Suggest Plastic Food Packaging Alternatives Need Further Development

With single-use plastics on their way to being banned and the demand for recyclable and biodegradable materials growing as a result, UBC researchers are intensifying their efforts to find cost-effective, technically viable solutions.

A multi-disciplinary team of researchers from UBC Faculty of Forestry, Faculty of Applied Science and the university’s Bioproducts Institute undertook a comprehensive review that adds critical perspectives about packaging products most commonly used for disposable food packaging – which equates to the largest single demand for plastics globally.

“Over 40 percent of all industrial packaging is devoted to food wrapping and packaging with 40 percent of that packaging made from plastics, “says UBC Forestry professor Chunping Dai. “Knowing that this represents the biggest contributor to plastic waste, we wanted to carefully analyze moulded pulp fibres as an alternative to these plastic products to see how they rate against both bioplastics and petroleum plastics.”

Current Use of Moulded Pulp Fibres

Common sources of moulded pulp fibres include recycled fibres, wood and non-wood fibres. Moulded pulp product examples include egg and fruit trays, horticultural trays and industrial packaging for items such as electronics. For food packaging, virgin fibres are typically used, including those from sugar cane bagasse, wheat straw and bamboo fibres. These materials are replacing wood as the principal fibre source due to “their cost effectiveness, wide availability and rapid renewability,” explains Dai.

Many Bioplastics Are Non-Biodegradable

Bioplastic tableware and packaging

Bioplastics can be produced from renewable biomass sources such as corn starch, vegetable fats and oils or recycled food waste. They are considered a better environmental alternative to petroleum-based plastics; however, many challenges exist related to their end of life since many of them are not biodegradable, says Dr. Dai.

“Our review of existing literature confirmed that around half of all bioplastics produced are non-biodegradable and those that are biodegradable require tightly controlled processing conditions.”

In the recently published open-access paper Moulded pulp fibers for disposable food packaging: A state-of-the-art review, the group’s review analyzed the manufacturing of moulded pulp food packaging using non-wood fibres. Both the process and performance additives used in the production cycle and properties pertinent to this specific type of packaging were investigated.

The team’s findings concluded numerous challenges still exist for the moulded pulp food container industry.

“Despite all of the production advances that have been made, our study definitively shows there are still challenges to overcome,” adds co-author, Bioproducts Institute Scientific Director and Canada Excellence Research Chair in Bioproducts and fellow faculty member Dr. Orlando Rojas.

In the case of bioplastics, Rojas explains they too have evolved from previous forms but still cannot outpace the petroleum plastic market as they have a number of production challenges ranging from supply chain issues to the ongoing need for chemical performance additives including petroleum-based additives that tend to hamper recycling efforts.

To overcome these challenges and thereby improve market competitiveness for both bioplastics and fibre-based food packaging, Dai and the team are recommending more comprehensive municipal waste programs and proactive government policies be put into place and improvements be made to the current composting and recycling waste pathways. His team also recommends further evaluation of moulded pulp food container biodegradability and product development using different fibre mixes and non-toxic performance additives.

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