An EU and industry funded project has developed game-changing food packaging material that is rapidly biodegradable. The material is a means to replace the plastic packing used for ready meals and reduce pollution.
Increasingly, supermarket shelves are taken up with ready meals – precooked food that requires simple reheating. Consumers in the EU bought over 6.5 billion ready meals in 2017. However, while ready-made meals evidently suit modern lifestyles, the packaging they come in does not suit the environment.
Most ready meals are packaged in trays made of crystallised polyethylene terephthalate (CPET), a type of plastic derived from fossil sources. CPET can resist the high temperatures encountered when prepared food is reheated. However, most CPET trays end up in landfill as the recycling process cannot easily sort them from other waste.
CPET is also not biodegradable. Whether in landfill or in the environment it lasts for centuries – posing a risk to the environment and eventually human and animal food chains.
The FRESH project, funded by the Bio-based industries Joint Undertaking (BBI JU), a public-private partnership between the EU and the industry, is developing and testing an innovative ready-meal packaging tray made from a food-safe, GMO-free material which is fully bio-based and rapidly biodegradable.
“A ready-meal tray you can safely cook food in and which is rapidly biodegradable is desperately needed.” says project coordinator Steve Davey of Huhtamaki Molded Fiber Technology in the Netherlands. “At the base of the FRESH innovation is a natural cellulose-based material derived from wood mixed with a plant-derived polyester. We then use a new lamination technology to add on a new generation plant-based biofilm. Our process delivers a non-fossil packaging material with all the technical properties a high-end, ready meal tray needs.”
All round convenience
The partners already have developed prototypes but need to ensure the final product will be acceptable to consumers. The critical properties include guaranteeing an 8 to 10-day shelf life for prepared foods. The project also aims to ensure the new trays can be safely used in a microwave, a conventional oven or a fan oven. Disposal is another challenge.
“We are testing these new trays to meet strict biodegradability standards,” says Davey. “In landfill, home composting or the environment they will safely degrade within 3 to 6 months leaving no dangerous residues – they are independent of the waste stream and pose no risks to food chains. Future ready meals will be convenient from all aspects – from purchasing through cooking to waste disposal.”
FRESH has a small tight-knit partnership covering the whole packaging value chain, from forestry products to food packaging. The narrow scope of ready-meal trays was deliberate says Davey. “We wanted to focus on a very particular application to prove the technology,” he explains. “When we succeed then of course further research could expand the applications to, for example airline meals.”
Davey sees a strongly growing bottom-up pull for this technology on a daily basis – from retailers, supermarkets and consumers who are increasingly aware of the environmental consequences of current packaging and changing policies on plastic waste.
The project is funded through the Bio-based Industries Joint Undertaking, a public-private partnership between the EU and industry.
- Project acronym: FRESH
- Project number: 720739
- Participants: Netherlands (Coordinator), UK, Sweden
- Total costs: € 10 248 750
- EU contribution: € 5 636 813
- Duration: February 2017 to July 2020