Packaging on track to sustainability: with natural biomaterials!
Natural materials like paper, cotton or beeswax have a long tradition to be used in packaging - the first packaging film was cellophane, a transparent film made from plant-extracted regenerated cellulose. In recent years, novel innovatione technologies were developed, bringing natural materials back on the radar - and traceless® is one of them!
The novel generation of natural biomaterials are based on natural polymers extracted from biomass using innovative eco-friendly processes. Being built-in regenerative, this bio-circular natural material class has high application potential in various packaging applications. It complements reuse models with an innovative non-plastic natural material with minimum environmental footprint, helping to achieve full circularity where the technical material cycle cannot be closed. Read more about this material class, and how it is taken into account in recent regulations, in this blogpost!
Natural and non-plastic - by definition
Even though they have many similar properties to plastics, Natural biomaterials are explicitly not considered a (bio)plastic material per definition - e.g. in the EU Single-Use Plastics Directive (Article 3 Point 1), or the proposed Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (Article 3 Point 43). In these definitions, natural polymers that are not chemically modified are excluded from the plastic definition. As independent support for this, we have certified traceless® being plastic-free under the scheme flustix.
The proposed EU Packaging and Packaging Waste regulation - Setting new rules for sustainable transition
Proposed in November 2022 as part of the EU Green Deal, the Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR) aims to put the industry on track to sustainability by promoting reusable packaging, banning unnecessary packaging and requiring all packaging to be recyclable by 2030. As in other regulations (e.g. the SUPD), the new generation of natural biomaterials - of which traceless® is one - is in an exclusive special position: as they are based on natural biopolymers extracted directly from nature (in the case of traceless: from plant residues), they do not count as plastics. With a completely biocircular design, they are not only technically recyclable, but also in nature's organic cycle - for example via composting or anaerobic digestion - and can thus contribute to achieving recycling quotas.
With their regenerative and bio-circular design and natural chemical structure, natural biomaterials leave a minimum environmental footprint over the whole lifecycle on all impact indicators. Based on renewable resources, they often use 2nd generation biomass (industry leftovers), avoiding both fossil use and direct food conflicts. For example, traceless® uses a production residue of industrial grain processing. In a simple and environmentally friendly process, natural polymers are extracted. Synthetic or microbial polymerization is not needed. Life-cycle assessment data shows that natural biomaterial technologies reduce carbon emissions and energy demand significantly, all while preserving agricultural land (traceless® LCA).
Application potential in packaging
Following the concept of a fully circular economy, the biological / regenerative material cycle is needed to complement the technical cycle. Natural biomaterials are a bio-circular solution for applications where reuse or mechanic recycling cannot be implemented sustainably. This is relevant in various packaging applications: e.g. food contact packaging where recycled input is not allowed due to food safety reasons, packaging that is difficult to recycle due to its small size, packaging likely to end in the environment or biowaste (e.g. food pack., agriculture), or single-use components of reusable packaging (e.g. sealing). Furthermore, natural biomaterials can replace virgin biomass materials like wood or paper, not demanding the felling of trees.
While materials like traceless® are a novel innovation, they are compatible with standard technologies: For example with plastic converting technologies like injection moulding or extrusion, which enables a low-threshold changeover from plastics for amanufacturers, and high potential in rigid or flexible applications.
With their bio-circular design, and a very low production footprint, traceless® materials are built-in circular - just like other natural materials. By replacing plastics with a natural alternative, it avoids the generation of plastic waste that needs to be treated. In a still non-perfect system, with highly different infrastructure (both globally, Europe-wide and regionally), natural biomaterials are sustainable in all end-of-life scenarios:
Organic recycling (industrial composting/ anaerobic digestion): Due to their natural chemical composition, natural biomaterials are biodegradable like natural substances. Through organic recycling, they are used to generate renewable energy (biogas) and/or soil enhancing nutrients (compost/digestate). As traceless® is fully biobased, emitted carbon equals the carbon that the plants have absorbed during their growth. traceless® is certified home compostable.
In practice, a lot of packaging is currently not recyclable due to missing collection and sorting systems. This non-recycled waste is mainly incinerated nlike plastics, incineration is also a sustainable option. Due to the closed biosphere carbon loop, renewable energy is created. Because of the low production effort, the grey energy loss is minor.
Mechanical recycling is technically possible, due to thermoplastic properties. Detectability in current sorting systems (via NIR) has been proven in standard machinery. However, due to the very low footprint, virgin production might outperform mechanical recycling in core impact indicators, if the required impact for transport and treatment is factored in accordingly.
Supporting Bioeconomy Growth - Economic / Technological Potentials
“With our current fossil-based economy having reached its limits, the transition towards a new societal and economic model, based on the sustainable and circular use of biological resources, has become one of the Union’s core tasks." EU Bioeconomy strategy progress report, June 2022
The EU Bioeconomy strategy sets the transition from fossil to renewable resources as one of the Union’s core tasks. Natural biomaterials offer a solution: They are quality competitive to plastics and bioplastics in many aspects, and can be produced with a competitive price at industrial scale. Due to the efficient process technologies and wide availability of biomass (e.g. agricultural production sidestreams), natural biomaterial technologies have huge scale-up potential both inside and outside the EU. Offering a drop-in solution for plastic converting industry, they are change enablers allowing brand owners to switch to holistically sustainable product opportunities.
In the face of growing plastic consumption in countries where waste infrastructure is difficult to implement completely, natural biomaterials can help to tackle plastic pollution and fossil dependency globally. Supporting the development and initial market entry of these innovative green technologies sets the cornerstone for successful technology export, and strengthens the EU’s role as global green technology leader.