International Packaging Award for Würzburg researcher
Dr. Sabine-Amberg Schwab from the Fraunhofer Institute for Silicate Research ISC in Würzburg was presented with the Sustainability Award 2020 by Packaging Europe on 15 October. She received the award for the development of bioORMOCER®s, a sustainable material concept for plastic packaging. The jury particularly emphasised that bioORMOCER®s not only improve the properties of bioplastics and paper, but also make plastic packaging in general recyclable.
Between 275 submitted packaging concepts in eight different categories, the jury of international experts from Packaging Europe, the leading information medium of the packaging industry in Europe, was spoilt for choice. Among them were entries from well-known companies such as Henkel and Beiersdorf. Initially chosen as the winner in the category "bio-based packaging", the Fraunhofer researchers from Würzburg were so convincing with their universal material and packaging concept for recyclable or compostable plastic packaging that they even emerged as the overall winner in all eight categories in the annual Europe-wide competition.
Why plastic packaging is so difficult to recycle
Plastic packaging is easy to produce but only a few are recyclable. This is mainly due to the fact that most plastics on their own are not sufficiently impermeable to water vapour and gases. To turn them into packaging materials that protect the packaged goods - e.g. food, medicines, electronics or cosmetics - sufficiently against environmental influences, packaging manufacturers combine different types of plastic in a composite film. These composite films are perfectly equipped for the respective packaging task, but cannot be separated after use and therefore cannot be recycled sensibly.
Sustainable packaging alternatives
Instead of laminating different plastics to form a composite film, the team headed by Dr. Sabine Amberg-Schwab at the Fraunhofer ISC is working on making single-variety plastics suitable for packaging. To do this, a very thin so-called barrier layer is applied to a film like a varnish. This layer makes the film tight enough against the passage of water vapour and gases to make it suitable for packaging. However, at only a few thousandths of a millimetre it is so thin that it does not interfere with the recycling process. In addition, the special barrier material - called ORMOCER® - is particularly resistant to abrasion, providing additional protection for the packaging. Plastics coated with this material can be reused in the manufacture of new packaging in the form of pure, so-called mono-materials. This not only saves valuable resources. If used plastic packaging is recycled instead of being incinerated, dumped or sent around the world, the environment also benefits.
With bioplastics and bioORMOCER® substitute for petroleum-based packaging
Bioplastics made from biogenic raw materials promise an environmentally friendly alternative to petroleum-based plastics for packaging. But even here, the barrier properties of the material itself are usually not sufficient for packaging purposes. For this purpose, Dr. Amberg-Schwab and her team have also developed a bio-based and compostable variant of barrier coatings. For this new class of bioORMOCER® materials, bio-organic building blocks from food production residues or from biological waste streams are used. This "upgrading of organic waste" means that there is no competition with food cultivation areas. The residues are turned into new high-quality raw materials for the chemical synthesis of bioORMOCER®s. These bio-lacquers also have very good barrier properties, abrasion-resistant surfaces, can be printed and coated as well as glued. They can be used for food packaging as well as for cosmetics and pharmaceutical packaging. The bioORMOCER®s are suitable for the refinement of biopolymers as well as for conventional plastics or paper packaging. They can be applied in fast roll-to-roll processes on flat substrates, but also complex geometries such as trays or pots can be coated.
"With these innovations from the Fraunhofer ISC, the path to sustainable recyclable or compostable packaging materials can now be taken without compromise," says Institute Director Prof. Dr. Gerhard Sextl, delighted with the new award for his colleague. Dr. Sabine Amberg-Schwab and her team have already been honoured several times for their sustainable material concepts, most recently in September with the German Packaging Award 2020 in gold and currently with the Sustainability Award 2020 from Packaging Europe.
ORMOCER®: Registered trademark of Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft zur Förderung der anwendungsorientierten Forschung e. V., Munich