Espoo, Finland-based VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland is investing €1.5 million ($1.6 million) into its CelluloseFilms pilot facility, where it produces renewable cellulose films designed to replace conventional plastic ones in packaging.
The investment will enable the institute to test and develop methods to scale up the production of these films, with the aim of making ‘sustainable materials more mainstream in an industry heavily reliant on packaging materials’, said Ali Harlin, who is a research professor at VTT.
“Polypropylene film is one of the world’s most used polymers and the market is expected to grow by €15 billion by 2035. It’s so useful in keeping food fresh that the world can’t do without it,” Harlin added.
These transparent plastic films have been used in packaging for decades to protect food and minimize waste. The problem is that they are difficult to recycle because of the multilayer, multimaterial structure from which they derive their protective properties. These layers are unable to be separated, which means that, at the end of life, such packaging usually ends up in landfills. Yet, to date, no other viable, sustainable alternative is available on the market.
At VTT’s pilot facility, researchers are working to develop easily recyclable cellulose-based film-like materials for food packaging and bio-based barrier materials for films, paper and cardboard.
Plastic wraps have been absolutely essential to the packaging industry since the 1940s, but the world is well overdue for a better alternative, Harlin pointed out.
“So far, we have received feedback from our customers that they can’t tell the difference between our cellulose-based films and traditional plastic wraps.”
The development focus of the pilot is on improving the barrier properties, manufacturing packaging from the materials, and the commercial utilization of the material solutions in emerging value chains. The institute projects that in five more years, the new packaging material could be in general use.
VTT is already working with over 30 Finnish and international companies that are interested in the next generation of sustainable film solutions.