engineering and technology

Science|Business: Can Plastic Go Green?

plastic bottle (unsplash)

Researchers at TalTech in Estonia push to produce biodegradable packaging from cellulose.

Pressure is building to find greener alternatives to plastic food packaging. While millions of tonnes of almost indestructible plastic enter the world’s oceans each year, malleable packing films are burned or sent to landfill after use, causing further pollution.

In an ideal world, the oil-based polymers used to pack food and drink would be swapped out for bio-based polymers that will quickly degrade without causing any harm to the natural environment. Andres Krumme, a professor in the Department of Materials and Environmental Technology, Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech) in Estonia, is trying to make that happen. “All of mankind is looking for a substitute for oil-based polymers,” he says. “Today, we are packing everything, including food, in polymers that can have a useful lifetime of 10 to 60 years.”

In their labs, Krumme’s research team has successfully developed a new type of cellulose-based polymers that can be melted and manipulated in the same way as low density polyethylene (a widely used packaging material), under conditions similar to those typically used in industrial polymer processing. “Cellulose biopolymer is generally highly crystallized with strong hydrogen bonds, which means it can’t easily be melted or processed,” explains Krumme. “But our new polymers – cellulose fatty acid esters– can be processed in the same way as the commodity polymers.” Moreover, he says the relatively easy modification procedure should make it possible to obtain other new polymers with a wide range of properties.

Read the full article by David Pringle in Science|Business.

The publication of this article was funded by the European Regional Development Fund through Estonian Research Council.

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