Plastic in our seas is a problem that can be solved by technology – in other words, we can remove waste from the sea with existing technologies. The main problem is that plastic ends up in the sea in the first place, not to mention that the volume of plastic in the sea is rising all the time. A large percentage of plastic waste consist of food containers. Åbo Akademi University is involved in a project whose aim is to come up with alternative materials that replace plastic packaging and survey attitudes in food consumption.
Each year, 26 million tonnes of plastic waste is generated in Europe, roughly 60 per cent of which is packaging. Of this packaging, 95 per cent is thrown away after an extremely short period of use. Åbo Akademi University is participating in an Academy of Finland-funded project called Package Heroes in co-operation with VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke) and LUT University. The aim of the project is to find sustainable solutions for the replacement of plastics.
Nina Tynkkynen, Associate Professor within The Sea at Åbo Akademi University, is the project manager for Åbo Akademi University’s project contribution. She says that the technical aspect of research is based on an examination of the value chain of food packaging from a sustainability perspective as well as exploring possibilities for the replacement of conventional plastics with bio-materials, primarily those that are cellulose-based.
The Åbo Akademi University project contingent will focus on researching consumer culture and legislative aspects of food packaging. This means that the research will be conducted by researchers in the humanities and social sciences. An ethnologist examines, for example, consumer practices. How does an average consumer use food packaging? And, is the ecological sustainability of food packaging important to the average consumer?
“My own research examines the various conceivable political actions that could be taken to promote the replacement of petroleum-based plastics,” explains Tynkkynen.
“Our aim is to put ourselves in a position where we can provide policy advice in an effort to influence legislation. For example, we will explore which incentives work best – stick, carrot, sermonising – or a combination of all three.”
Finland at the forefront
Project leader VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland sees a major opportunity for Finland to develop materials that can replace plastics. There is evidence that Finland could have major opportunities to profile itself as a producer of food packaging, in which case an emphasis is even placed on the industrial aspects of packaging manufacture and materials alongside the global economy. A key part of the project is the European Plastics Strategy and its recent national investigation into the use of plastics. In order to effect change, VTT feels that it will be necessary to research sustainable raw materials of the future and their development, how new solutions can be commercialised, and how it will be possible to achieve the socially acceptable regulation of plastic packaging.
However, not all types of bioplastic that are considered replacements for petroleum-based plastics are biodegradable. The Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke) was tasked with conducting technical analyses of materials best suited for food packaging, whilst LUT University is examining the economic aspects, i.e. exploring the most effective way of promoting business opportunities.
“We are taking a look at the environmental footprint of biomaterials in the project. Plastic is certainly not always the worst solution. You have to look at the whole value chain,” says Tynkkynen.
“A cucumber wrapped in a plastic sleeve can, on the whole, be part of a more ecologically sustainable solution than one that isn’t. If you don’t wrap cucumbers in plastic, an excessively high percentage of them will rot before they ever get to the consumers, and if too large a percentage of them are just thrown away, the overall impact on the environment will be greater than the ecological cost of the plastic wrap. As a whole, it is difficult to calculate the total environmental impact of food packaging.”
A cucumber wrapped in a plastic sleeve can, on the whole, be part of a more ecologically sustainable solution than one that isn’t. If you don’t wrap cucumbers in plastic, an excessively high percentage of them will rot before they ever get to the consumers, and if too large a percentage of them are just thrown away, the overall impact on the environment will be greater than the ecological cost of the plastic wrap.
Plastics are not always the worst option
Plastics serve their purpose of protecting part of the food chain between producer and consumer. Consequently, one of the practical challenges is finding packaging solutions that both take the packaging waste problem into consideration and reliably perform their function from a food safety and food waste standpoint. This requires a comprehensive overview of the entire production and consumer chain. VTT feels that Finland has enormous potential in the packaging, forestry, food and circular economy sectors and as an actor in the biomaterials supply chain.
“During part of the project, we will be working in co-operation with a Finnish fast-food chain in an effort to determine what role sustainability plays and will play for it,” explains Tynkkynen.
Finnish research on biomaterials, particularly wood-based materials, is well known throughout the world. Although several new recyclable biomaterials designed to replace conventional plastics have recently been developed in Finland, their commercialisation has proven difficult because a co-ordination of both availability and market demand is required. On the other hand, the Finnish foodstuffs industry is actively developing products with export potential. According to VTT, the transition from mass production to personalised solutions, from centralised to more seamless production and distribution, combined with more stringent requirements on sustainability, has the potential to open up global opportunities, provided that all parts of the problem can be solved at once.
Package Heroes has a budget of EUR 5 million. Tynkkynen was drawn to the project by Åbo Akademi University’s research focal area, The Sea.
“The Sea is what got me interested, and more specifically the problem of plastic waste in the sea. For social scientists, plastics in the sea is a much broader problem than merely the presence of waterborne waste. We have to figure out how the problem itself can be avoided, not just how to pull the waste out of the water, which is a technical problem – one that can be solved using existing technologies. And plastic is not yet such a major problem for the Baltic Sea. However, at the global level, plastic pollution of the seas is an enormous problem.”
“And then we have the problem of microplastics, which is on a whole other level of difficulty, because we still don’t have any technical means of removing them from the water. A majority of the microplastics come from ordinary plastics that have been broken down and dissolved. Microplastics are not visible to the naked eye. They come from such plastics as polyethylene, which dissolves in the wash.”
A majority of the microplastics come from ordinary plastics that have been broken down and dissolved. Microplastics are not visible to the naked eye. They come from such plastics as polyethylene, which dissolves in the wash.