Plastic has properties that makes it challenging to fully substitute, especially when looking at the food and drinks packaging industry. It is a lightweight and transparent material, and it comes with excellent barrier properties – protecting foods, extending shelf life and reducing waste. However, it is also associated with many problems like the release of fossil carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at its end-of-life. The fact is, we simply cannot cope with the amount of fossil-based plastic on our planet. Something needs to change.
Since the late 20th century, we have depended on plastic as an affordable, versatile and durable material. Hence, the worldwide consumption of plastic is still rising. In 2016, 480 billion plastic bottles were sold, up from 300 billion in 2004. Today, one million plastic bottles are sold every minute and the annual sales keep increasing (Euromonitor, 2021). One of the most widely used plastics for packaging foods and beverages is polyethylene terephthalate (PET), used for example for bottles for soft drinks, salad dressings, cooking oils, and liquid hand soap. PET was first patented in the 1940s, initially for fibre & textiles, and the first PET bottles were produced in the 1970s.
Despite their superior properties, fossil-based plastics like PET come with significant issues. One of them is the release of fossil carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at its end-of-life. For this reason, our attitudes and behaviors towards plastic must change to ensure a safe and healthy future for our planet. The shift from fossil-based to renewable bioplastics requires new, efficient methods.
"People like to have products packaged in a compelling way. They also want to make a choice that feels good, with plastic coming from a source you can trust, and which you can discard, knowing it’s going to be recycled," says Dirk den Ouden, vice president Emerging Business, Division Biomaterials at Stora Enso.
For decades, scientists have been looking for feasible bio-based alternatives to PET and other fossil-based plastics. One of the options is via furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA), an organic chemical compound that occurs in nature. FDCA is the key building block for bio-based plastics such as PEF, it can be applied to a wide variety of industrial applications, including bottles, food packaging, textiles, carpets, electronic materials, and automotive parts.
To get the most out of this material, Stora Enso has been developing a breakthrough technology called FuraCore to produce FDCA, laying the foundation for a plastic that, as people working with the technology like to say, makes sense.
"It has all the features that society would like to see today," Den Ouden states. "It is bio-based, there are great barrier characteristics, and it can fit in the existing recycling structure. It is safe to say we have a plastic that has the potential to be a game changer in the packaging industry."
When thinking about the benefits that bio-based plastic brings out, people tend to focus on the environmental aspects, which, indeed, are promising. Firstly, it is not produced from crude oil. Instead, its ingredients are derived from growing plants. Not only do these grow back after harvesting, they also absorb carbon dioxide during their growth.
The material itself also shows significant advantages for food and beverage packaging. PEF could replace other plastic bottles, aluminium cans and glass jars in a wide variety of applications and industries. Tests also show excellent barrier properties, enabling better protection and longer shelf life, or lighter, more efficient packaging. In addition, it provides great opportunities for differentiation, an important element in the packaging landscape.
"If you look at all the different features needed to get a certain shelf life, shape or behaviour, it often requires combining different technologies and multiple materials. If you can use a single material that serves the purpose, there’s going to be great benefit in utilising it compared to more common solutions, including easier recycling," Den Ouden declares.
Currently, Stora Enso is starting up the FuraCore FDCA pilot plant at its Langerbrugge recycled paper mill near Ghent, Belgium. Commercialisation is the goal, and pilot production will start in 2022.
Currently, the pilot is in the final stages of commissioning. The plan is to produce the first material in autumn 2022 and be in full production mode towards the end of the year. Den Ouden believes that a wide range of applications is on its way:
"I think the opportunity we bring about is a plastic that makes sense. In addition to fulfilling the customer need for circularity, I think the message here is that there is a beautiful new material on its way that is about to get commercialised. We strongly encourage packaging industry companies to reach out so we can see if it meets your customer needs."