Safe and sustainable bio-resin eyes commercialisation

By George Reynolds

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Bpa, Agriculture

A naturally epoxised oil from Ethiopia's vernonia weed could
provide food and drink processors with a safe and sustainable
substitute for the resin used to line packaging.

With the uncertainty surrounding oil supplies and a focus on reducing toxic chemicals used its manufacture, food packagers are searching for alternatives to epoxy, which is currently only produced using petrochemicals. As a result, bio-resins are being developed using crops such corn and soybean. UK-based Vernique Biotech claims the oil from vernonia is free of bisphenol-A (BPA), a chemical linked to cancer. The epoxy created from the oil has a comparable performance to competing products made from petrochemicals, the company claims. The worldwide supply of conventional epoxy is currently only manufactured by combining petrochemicals with epichlorohydrin and BPA. BPA is used to manufacture polycarbonate, a rigid plastic used to make infant feeding bottles, plates, mugs, jugs, beakers, microwave oven ware and storage containers. It is also used in the production of the epoxy-phenolic resins that form internal protective linings for cans and metal lids. The resins are also used as coatings for water storage tanks and wine vats. People are exposed to BPA in food through its use in certain plastic and other materials that are used in products such as bottles and cans. The chemical has been found to migrate in small amounts into foods and beverages stored in materials containing the substance. Vernonia oil-based epoxy is also naturally free of volatile organic compounds (VOC) which are present in petrochemical-based products, the company claims. VOCs are have been linked to health problems and are thought to cause environmental damage, especially when exposed to ultra violet light. Following multiple studies indicating there might be a risk from BPA, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) last month set a maximum daily ingestion limit for humans of five milligram per kg of bodyweight. "These exposure estimates include BPA migration into canned foods and into food in contact with PC table ware or storage receptacles,"​ EFSA stated. The estimates do not include either potential migration of BPA from receptacles into food during microwave heating or into drinking water due to the use of resins in water pipes and in water storage tanks. Vernique Biotech has been cultivating the weed since 2004 and was granted exclusive access to vernonia for ten years by the Ethiopian government in 2006, in return for payment consisting of a mix of license fees, royalties and share of profits. The epoxy oil is currently not on the market for commercial use, but instead being tested and formulated to explore potential applications. Vernonia is indigenous to Ethiopia and to due to its daily light requirements the weed will only successfully grow with 15 degrees of the Equator. Between the 1970s and 1990s, the US agriculture department extensively researched the potential of vernonia, but abandoned the weed when it was found the crop would not grow in the states. Vernique co-founder and chief executive officer, Paul McClory, who has spent the last ten years researching industrial non-food agriculture, said the company was now also growing crops south of the equator in Zambia and aims to spread cultivation to multiple countries to commercial volumes from 2008 onwards. "We expect to grow about 100 hectares of the crop this year, with each yielding between one and two tonnes of epoxy,"​ he told FoodProductionDaily.com. "We expect to be able to price competitively against industrially epoxised soybean oil-based expoxy."​ Soybean oil based epoxy, a competing oil used for bio-resins, has the disadvantage that requires industrial epoxidation, whereas the process occurs naturally in vernonia oil, which is better for the enviroment, the company claims. Local farmers in Ethiopia and Zambia are also set to benefit as vernonia thrives on land unsuitable for growing food. The company, officially created in 2005, hopes to tap into a worldwide epoxy market estimated to be worth €11.5bn ($15bn) a year, according to the Freedonia Group, an analyst. Recent US and Japanese scientific studies caused a scare over BPA in 2005. The US study found low doses of BPA could harm the development of young brains. Another US study found that BPA increased breast cancer cell growth. The US studies were done on rats. The Japanese study indicated a link between recurrent miscarriages in women and BPA.

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