The term "biodegradable" has been used over the past few years, to describe plastics or packaging that could potentially be metabolized by microorganisms in nature, with complete breakdown to CO2/Methane, water and biomass. However, there is significant confusion and controversy surrounding biodegradable plastics since many suppliers have used the term to loosely describe their material/packaging without specifying the conditions under which the material would degrade in nature. For instance, some plastics (like PLA) will only degrade under industrial composting conditions, while some others (like PHA) can break down under a wider range of conditions and environments (industrial, backyard, marine). Given this widespread confusion and the misuse of the "biodegradable" term, many global government and industry organizations have issued guidelines to restrict or eliminate the unqualified use of biodegradable as a descriptor of plastics or packaging. These include the European Commission guidelines (European Plastics Strategy) and the Federal Trade Commission Green Guides in the US.
In line with such guidelines, Ubuntoo's recommends that companies providing biodegradable materials, products or packaging:
1.Avoid unqualified use of the term "biodegradable" to describe their products
2.Any claim of biodegradability should be accompanied by a description of specific conditions and environments under which the material or product will undergo degradation in nature
3.It is strongly recommended that companies provide globally accepted certifications or testing for various biodegradability claims (such as the BPA certification for industrial composting)
Further in line with the position articulated by the European Commission as well as major CPG companies, Ubuntoo recommends that "biodegradable" plastics should not be considered a solution for littering (or worse a license to litter). Appropriate collection and end-of-life solutions (such as industrial composting or home composting) need to be put into place to avoid biodegradable plastics ending up as litter in the environment.
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Exploring microbial cellulose potential and applications in packaging
Emma's project grows by the awareness that the Earth needs now more than ever eco-efficient ways to sustain the human life. Biomimicry is an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating patterns and strategies tested by nature. For Emma, this project could be considered as inspiration source and foster further research about these fields to achieve feasible systems or ways to show how natural principles can make a difference applied to society in more sustainable production systems.
This project proposes the use of Microbial cellulose and living patterns, a kind of pure cellulose produced by bacteria and yeasts, as a material to produce disposable packaging and disposable tablewares. This experimentation called SCOBY aims to explore the possibilities of this material in the packaging and throw-away products field.
The proposed cycle is thought to be local and connected to regional composting plants so to make every region self-sufficient in the production of cellulose. To reach the emission-decreasing goal, the cellulose must be used only to wrap and contain only local (regional) products. The point is that every region can be self-sufficient to answer local packaging & miscellaneous needs.
Fruits and vegetables’ leftovers from the local producers would be used in the production of cellulose enhancing the value of the entire cycle by using the useful parts thrown away. Microbial cellulose packaging and tablewares would substitute paper and plastic ones in some applications limiting their demand and consequently their production and the issues related to their disposal and recycling. Differently from these materials this kind of cellulose can be composted with organic waste so, it becomes eventually fertilizer for the soil.
The cellulose is very absorbent but at the same time more water-resistant than “normal” paper so, what can be said after this experimentation is that it is particularly suitable to be used for:
Dry food such as powders like flours, granular foods like sugar, pasta, rice, tea leaves (it seems to be a barrier to oxygen), dry fruits, seeds and so on.
Short usage food supports such as holders for sauces, french fries, sandwiches and street food in general as long as the consumption is quite fast.
As far as the results proved it needs to be treated (beeswax or natural impervious treatments) to contain liquids and oily foods. Surely further research should be led by professional biologists and engineers.
Emma's role as a designer in this project was to explore the existing context and the issues concerning consumption and waste in order to imagine an alternative system which could be a substitute to harmful existing dynamics following the cradle-to-cradle principle. Her thesis project was a speculation which sees a future in which every region has own cellulose plants attached to biogas and compost plants which would produce the material with local fruits and vegetables leftovers to make packaging for local food products and also food supports for local events and open air activities.
This dynamic would avoid the demand for the same plastic/paper items and limiting therefore the call of resources to manufacture them. The cycle would be closed as long as these cellulose manufactures will be thrown in the organic bin and return to the plant to become fertilizer for the soil instead of ending up in a current recycling systems and its deceptive environmental-friendly myth.
The project, called lately "InnoCell" is currently led by two teams working in synergy: the Design Team and a Team of Food Technology at the Free University of Bolzano / Bozen. The project started officially in April 2018 and will last until April 2021. The goal of InnoCell is to bring the outcomes of FROM PEEL TO PEEL to the next step, to explore the possibility of an industrial productionof the material and to go on with the discovery of the microbial cellulose potential and applications.
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Bolzano, Italy, Europe
Stage of Development
Research TRL 1
Value Chain Impact
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