When we talk about plastic waste polluting the earth, we don’t often talk about the environmental impacts caused by fast food packaging. Flinders University researchers and German biomaterials developer one five (one point five) have started using algae in an effort to solve the fast food industry’s packaging waste dilemmas.
Using seaweed to create sustainable alternatives to existing products is not a new concept. The idea of turning algae into a supermaterial to replace bubble wrap had been floating around for more than seven years. More recently, New Zealand scientists have turned stink algae into green energy and fertilizer. This time, materials researchers from Flinders University and one · five are using seaweed extracts to develop next-generation biopolymer coating materials.
Essentially, these new non-polluting biomaterials are designed to replace conventional fossil-based plastic liners that are used in many grease-resistant fast food packaging.
Although not talked about or relatively thought about, the greaseproof paper used in fast food packaging is most often coated with plastic and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which are environmentally harmful chemicals.
The new algae liner prototype not only meets the functionality standards required of traditional grease-resistant packaging materials, but also works to create an environmentally circular solution.
But how do they incorporate algae into these prototypes, you ask? Well, scientists have taken extracts from certain algae and modified them to form degradable bioplastic films. The development was led by Dr. Zhongfan Jia, Principal Investigator of the Flinders Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology and research colleague Mr. Peng Su in association with the Flinders Center for Marine Bioproducts Development.
The seaweed used is native to the southern coast of Australia where its natural polymers have been extracted and used to create the biomass for the new fast food packaging coating.
Once the polymers are extracted, they are transformed by a proprietary processing system to create sheets of functional biopolymers. These sheets can then be cut or coated on various surfaces.
If you’re concerned about the durability of seaweed extracts, Dr. Jia says they’re similar in structure to the natural fibers that paper is made from. According to Dr. Jia, their “new specialty treatments enhance the grease-resistant characteristic of algae via simple modifications without affecting the biodegradability or recyclability of the coated paper.”
This ability to harness algae to create degradable bioplastic films for fast food packaging that meet standards is quite a remarkable feat. Hopefully, this achievement can usher in more progress in creating sustainable and environmentally responsible biopolymers.
Speaking about the benefits of growing seaweed, one · five Co-founder Clair Fusko said it naturally rehabilitates marine environments, “reduces greenhouse gases and mitigates coastal erosion.” Basically, a lot of good.
Flinders University and one · five are working together to create lab-scale processing to produce relevant volumes for the natural polymer coating industry, according to a press release.
While accomplishments like these are definitely celebrated, we can’t stop at seaweed packaging. We need to use seaweed farming and other sustainable tools to effectively help reduce our environmental impact and bring about real change.