Circular plastic initiatives share in million-dollar Davos prize

Non-recyclable plastics could soon be a thing of the past if these award-winning solutions honoured at the World Economic Forum get off the ground.

Five organisations have shared in $1 million in prize money for developing recyclable and compostable packaging solutions, announced by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos.

The Circular Materials Challenge was designed to help reduce the more than eight million tonnes of plastics entering the oceans each year. The target is lightweight, flexible packaging used for products such as sauces, coffee and snacks, which have proven difficult and expensive to recycle due to the packaging often containing several layers of materials.

The prize had two categories: “Make unrecyclable packaging recyclable” and “Combining materials that nature can handle”

The University of Pittsburgh was one of winners of the first category, using nano-engineering to create a recyclable material that can replace unrecyclable multi-layered packaging.

The material has been made from layers of polyethylene, which is easy to recycle, but each layer has been changed at the nano-scale to give different properties, so that layers that were once made from materials like aluminium (like in chip packets) or PET can now be made from a single material, improving recyclability.

The other winner in this category was Aronax Technologies Spain, which created a recyclable, magnetic coating, also designed to replace multi-layered packaging.

The magnetic additive – small, plate-like particles of silicates and iron oxide – can be applied to both recyclable and compostable plastics to increase the packaging’s ability to block gases such as oxygen.

There were three winners of the “Combining materials that nature can handle” award.

First was Full Cycle Bioplastics, which created a multi-layered packaging made from wood and plant waste that could be fed to bacteria and turned into new plastic. The development could be used to package a broad range of products, including muesli bars and chips to laundry detergent.

Until now, compostable plastics have not been able to compete with multi-layered packaging in terms of protecting food and other sensitive materials, though this is the first multi-layered packaging to be made from inexpensive compostable materials.

“We address both plastic pollution and organic waste at a systems level,” Full Cycle Bioplastics chief executive Andrew Falcon said.

“Transforming organic waste into a high value material will keep it out of landfill and reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.”

Next was the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, which developed a packaging that looks and feels like plastic, but is actually made from agricultural and forestry by-products, suitable packaging products like muesli, nuts and cheese.

The product is made by combining cellulose films with different properties – a a fibrous cellulose and a plastic type cellulose with complementary barrier properties.

VTT research professor Ali Harlin said the packaging material could be commercialised within three to five years, with the product capable of replacing up to 15 per cent of the current plastic barrier film market.

The final winner was the Fraunhofer Institute for Silicate Research, which has developed an organic coating for plastic that makes fresh food packaging compostable.

The coatings – made from silicate and biopolymers – can improve the performance of bio-based and biodegradable packaging, which alone cannot guarantee the required minimum shelf life of many food products.

“While compostable packaging films are already commercially available, they struggle to find use in food packaging as they do not have all the desired properties, including providing a sufficient barrier against water vapour or oxygen, tensile strength, and abrasion resistance,” head of the Functional Coatings Department Dr Sabine Amberg-Schwab said.

“Our idea was to improve the properties of bio-based and biodegradable films by developing a biodegradable coating.”

The winners will join a 12 month accelerator program, in collaboration with Think Beyond Plastic, which will provide access to experts to help make their innovations marketable at scale.

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