Sustainable Packaging: A Green Chemistry Approach

Naveen Kulkarni, Founder & CEO, Quantumzyme

There is no denying the fact that plastic is a necessary component of the packaging business. In recent years, the use of plastic in food and beverage packaging has raised severe environmental issues. According to India’s Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change, India has the fifth-largest economy in the world. At an average yearly growth rate of 4 per cent, the nation produces about 62 million tonnes of waste. Also, it was discovered that India presently produces 70 million metric tonnes of municipal solid waste. Out of it, merely 20 per cent of it gets recycled, and the remaining 80 per cent ends up in landfills and the ocean, where it harms humans, marine life, and the ecosystem. As a result, to cope with the issue, businesses today have embraced sustainable packaging, particularly in the food and beverage sector.

In fact, with the adoption, India can achieve sustainability in food packaging through four typical methods, including using raw materials that are 100 per cent recyclable or eco-friendly and redesigning the current packaging structures while maintaining functionality and production processes. In addition, supply chains with a smaller carbon footprint and a circular economy, where the lifecycle and usefulness of the package are extended. To achieve this goal, the industry has been looking at developing plastic substitutes for food and beverage packaging using green chemistry. The foundational elements and ideas of “green chemistry” arose as a practical answer to emerging environmental concerns. Hence, let’s explore how the industry may apply green chemistry to create plastic substitutes and what the government anticipates in this area.

Green Chemistry and Plastic Alternatives

Green chemistry is a set of guidelines to eliminate the use of potentially harmful substances in the design, manufacture, and use of chemical products. Synthesis, solvents, catalysis, raw materials, finished goods, and efficient processes are all included in the multidisciplinary field of green chemistry. In essence, green chemistry eliminates environmental harm and advances sustainability. Furthermore, it is an approach that promotes the design of chemical products and processes that reduce hazardous substances. The approach of green chemistry can be applied to the development of plastic alternatives for food and beverage packaging. The industry can explore the use of biodegradable materials, such as polylactic acid (PLA), starch-based materials, and cellulose-based materials, as an alternative to traditional plastics.

A biodegradable polymer called PLA is created from sugarcane or maize starch. It may decompose into organic substances like water and carbon dioxide and is biodegradable. Starch-based products are made from renewable resources such as maize, potatoes, and tapioca. They may be utilised to produce biodegradable containers, bags, and films. Cellophane and other cellulose-based products, which come from wood pulp, may be utilised to create biodegradable films and bags.

The most common polyester plastic, the iconic PET, is often  mechanically recycled, but this typically  results in lower-grade material. Various chemical methods for PET depolymerisation have been described but they typically involve harsh conditions and/or yield lower-grade products. In contrast to aliphatic polyesters, the aromatic PET is not easily hydrolysed by commercially available ester hydrolases. However, the PET surface can be functionalised through catalysis by lipases, esterases and cutinases. 

The discovery in 2016 of an enzyme, appropriately named petase, due to its ability to catalyse  the hydrolysis of PET, was a breakthrough in enzymatic depolymerisation of aromatic polyesters. This enzyme was isolated from a bacterium found in the soil of an industrial waste PET recycling facility. Petase shared  structural features with both lipases and cutinases, which are plant cell-wall degrading enzymes. Cutenases have also been shown to catalyse PET depolymerisation via hydrolysis or glycolysis with ethylene glycol. For instance, a cutinase was able to catalyse the hydrolysis of PET in polymer blends containing PE or polyamide.

Expectations from the Government

Governments all across the globe are taking action to prevent plastic waste and are promoting the use of green chemistry to create plastic substitutes for food and beverage packaging. According to the US government’s National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), governments anticipate the market to produce biodegradable and sustainable packaging options that are safe for both the environment and human health. Governments in various nations have imposed charges on them to prevent the use of plastic bags and other single-use items. However, there are several expectations that stakeholders can have from the government concerning exploring green chemistry to develop plastic alternatives and packaging. Some of these expectations may include the following:  

Invest and incentivise research and development: Governments can invest in developing and creating novel materials that replace plastic. This might entail collaborating with commercial businesses and academic institutions to create new materials that are ecologically-friendly, compostable, and biodegradable. Apart from this, the government can incentivise large organisations for engaging with startups involved in environmentally supportive biodegradation approaches of already accumulated plastics.

Regulation and policy: By enacting laws and regulations that promote the use of environmentally- friendly materials, governments may limit the use of plastics and encourage the use of alternatives. This can include putting tariffs on or outlawing some plastics and rewarding businesses employing eco-friendly products.

Cooperation and partnerships: To create and promote eco-friendly packaging and materials, governments can also engage with private businesses and groups. This may entail working together with manufacturers and retailers to provide sustainable packaging options that lower the amount of plastic- trash produced.

Education and public awareness: Governments can also inform citizens about the advantages of utilising eco-friendly products and the significance of decreasing plastic waste. This can involve starting public awareness efforts and offering tools and data on how to cut waste and practice more sustainable habits.

The government is anticipated to actively promote and encourage the development of eco-friendly materials and green chemistry and collaborate with businesses and the general public to build a more sustainable future. By taking these and other actions, governments can help create an environment that supports the development of sustainable packaging solutions and reduce the negative impact of packaging waste on the environment.

All Things Considered!

In the modern world, as civilisation generates more waste and pollution than Mother Earth can naturally handle, the green chemistry method has become essential. However, the ideal plastic packaging which combines required mechanical properties and cost-effectiveness with rapid triggered end-of-life degradation into naturally recyclable components remains an elusive goal and substantial challenge for future research and development.

Hence, it is important to inculcate the mindset of recycle and reuse and create a circular economy. A circular economy operates on the principles of designing waste and pollution out of the system, maintaining products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems.

It is evident that the linear disposable economy, which has become socially and economically obsolete, needs to be replaced by a circular economy. The circular economy is a framework for industrial economies, including the production of chemicals and plastics in particular, that prioritises restoration and regeneration in its design and intentions. Its primary objective is to reduce material flows and waste.

So, in this context, developing environmentally-friendly packaging can help businesses meet the increasing demand for sustainable products and reduce product waste. Moreover, the adoption of green chemistry can be accelerated with less negative impact on the environment if the government provides support and encouragement. Consequently, the government should take action to reduce plastic waste and promote the use of green chemistry as a viable alternative to plastics in the food and beverage industry.

Read Previous

Decoding Food Labels: The Key to Success for Indian MSMEs

Read Next

How can PPP revolutionise millet research and food development

Leave a Reply