The Engineer – Algae replaces plastic in grease-resistant fast food packaging

Seaweed extracts are being used to develop next-generation biopolymer coating materials to replace fossil-based plastic coatings used in grease-resistant fast food packaging.

Greaseproof paper is usually coated with plastic and other chemicals, including polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). The new coating prototype developed by flinders university materials researchers in Australia and German biomaterials developer one five is meant to meet the functional requirements of conventional grease-resistant packaging materials while presenting an environmentally circular solution.

“We are able to reduce harmful plastic pollution through this product, and we also use raw materials that are regenerative for the environment,” said five-year-old co-founder Claire Gusko. “The cultivation of seaweed helps to naturally rehabilitate marine environments, reduce greenhouse gases and mitigate coastal erosion. It is important to us to use sustainable upstream inputs to ensure that our products are safe for the environment, from cradle to grave.

This development – which took extracts from certain algae, added modifications and formed degradable bioplastic films – was led by Dr Zhongfan Jia, a principal investigator from the Flinders Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology in and research colleague Mr. Peng Su in association with the Flinders Center for Marine Bioproducts Development.

“Seaweed extracts are similar in structure to the natural fibers from which paper is made,” Dr. Jia said in a statement. “Our new specialty treatments enhance the grease-resistant characteristic of algae through simple modifications without affecting the biodegradability or recyclability of the coated paper.”

According to Flinders, the biomass for the new coating formulation is made from natural polymers extracted from seaweed native to the southern coast of Australia. These extracts are transformed by a proprietary processing method to produce sheets of functional biopolymers that can be cut or coated onto various surfaces, depending on the application.

Flinders University and one five are now working to transfer the processing to the laboratory scale to produce relevant volumes for the natural polymer coating industry.

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