Ellen MacArthur Foundation Circular Materials Challenge

VTT cellulose film for nuts, chocolate, cereals and cheese to be commercialized in 3-5 years

By Jenny Eagle contact

- Last updated on GMT

VTT recognized for its cellulose packaging. Picture: VTT.
VTT recognized for its cellulose packaging. Picture: VTT.

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VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland has been recognized by The Ellen MacArthur Foundation as a Circular Materials Challenge winner for its compostable, lightweight cellulose film, which could be commercialized in 3-5 years.

The plastic-like packaging material is suitable for dry and greasy products, such as nuts, cereals, coffee, condiments and raisins and for products, which need a long shelf life.

Plastic Economy Accelerator Programme

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The Circular Materials Challenge winners were honored in a ceremony at the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland on January 23. 

VTT is one of five winners mentioned at the event including the University of Pittsburgh, Aronax Technologies, Fraunhofer Institute for Silicate Research, and Full Cycle Bioplastics; Elk Packaging and Associated Labels and Packaging team, who will split the $1m prize between them.

Ali Harlin, research professor, VTT, said in terms of properties, the material is even better than current biodegradable bioplastics on the market today and can be produced on existing packaging machinery. 

VTT has many research and development lines for renewable and recycled materials, based on decades of research and experience. We especially have a strong background working with forest biomass and packaging. We believe in systematic change and work towards long term strategic targets​,” he said. 

To be recognized for sustainability in packaging, which is one of our key competence areas, is a really important acknowledgement of our work and feels amazing. The money is of course valuable however, development of new materials is very expensive​.” 

All the winners (11 in total) will now form part of a 12-month New Plastic Economy Accelerator Programme, where they are given expert support to make their innovations marketable. When one year has passed, the Foundation will award an additional $1m prize to the best contestant.

Our Ocean conference

In a statement, Dame Ellen MacArthur said she hopes ‘these innovations will inspire even more progress, helping to build a system in which all plastic materials are reused, recycled or safely composted’.

The Accelerator Program is an amazing opportunity for us to get multi-disciplinary insights and improve our packaging material solution​,” added Harlin.  

The award money will be used to further develop the properties of our packaging material and accelerate the commercialization of our product.​ 

We had a chance to meet Dame Ellen MacArthur at the ceremony in Davos and we actually gave her the very first prototype of our packaging solution.​  

Next, we have created a 12-month research and development plan for the Accelerator Program. The aim is to scale-up and get one step closer to providing to market an environmentally friendly alternative for plastics​.” 

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation announced two challenges last year; The Circular Materials Challenge (winners announced in Davos) which ​focuses on "How to make all plastic packaging recyclable?" and the Circular Design Challenge (winners announced at Our Ocean conference in Malta in October last year) which focuses on "How can we get products to people without generating plastic waste?".

VTT’s film is made with two sorts of transparent wood cellulose; a fibrous cellulose (HefCel) and a plastic-type cellulose (MMCC). These two materials have complementary barrier properties and VTT has combined them into a compostable three-layer film, which looks and performs like plastic but is entirely bio-based. 

The flexible and transparent lightweight material protects the product from atmospheric gases and humidity. It also forms a barrier against the grease or mineral oil in the product. The package can be sealed by heating. 

The material is ideal for packaging applications such as snack bags, stand-up pouches for dry foods such as cereal and nuts; a flexible packaging for air-sensitive products like chocolate, biscuits and thin cuts of cheese and potentially some liquids and moist food. 

In theory, such cellulose-derived packaging could replace up to 15% of the current plastic barrier film market. 

"By optimizing the layer structure, we can improve the technical properties and reduce the amount of materials used. If the package was manufactured of one cellulose-based material only that would meet all the requirements for a good packaging material, the package would be very thick and heavy​," added Harlin. 

Circular Materials Challenge winners;

  • University of Pittsburgh; Recyclable, flexible and durable packaging created through nano-engineering.
  • Aronax Technologies Spain; A recyclable, magnetic coating that replaces multi-layered packaging.
  • Full Cycle Bioplastics; Packaging made from wood and plant waste, which can be fed to bacteria and turned into new plastic again.
  • VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland; Packaging that looks and feels like plastic, but is made from wood.
  • Fraunhofer Institute for Silicate Research; An organic coating for plastic that makes fresh food packaging compostable.

Circular Design Challenge winners:

  • MIWA; Delivering groceries without single-use packaging and cutting household plastic waste.
  • Algramo; Access the right amount of product without the need for non-recyclable single-use sachets.
  • Evoware; Seaweed-based packaging that replaces billions of small bits of plastics with a nutrient boost.
  • Delta; An edible or water soluble sachet solution for restaurants and other hospitality businesses.
  • CupClub; A returnable cup ecosystem to replace the 100 billion single-use cups and lids used every year.

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2 comments

Can be Circular

Posted by Peter,

Made from cellulose. Any source of cellulose will do, including circular material streams.
Can be composted (because it is biodegradable). In the long run, it will be more circular to recycle as material at first (disperse and reuse the fibers as long as the fibers are sufficiently long), then as monomer (enzymatic or acid-catalyzed hydrolysis to glucose and subsequent biopolymerization to microbial cellulose).
The cellulose in cotton garments is already commercially recycled as fiber for the manufacturing of cotton towels. The biopolymerization of glucose to microbial cellulose is currently not economical due to the low price of plant-derived cellulose and the relatively high cost of production with micro-organisms.
Households in specific regions may opt to recycle the packaging material through the existing system for cardboard recycling rather than composting since it takes cellulose 4-6 months to fully decompose in industrial-scale composts.

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Not really Circular

Posted by Matt,

Made from wood and then gets composted. Unless the carbon cycles as a whole is included then this is a one way material.

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