Using nanotechnology to solve the plastic problem
Nofima scientist Jawad Sarfraz has been awarded significant funding for a research project to find new solutions for efficiently recycling more of the plastic used in food packaging, and reducing food waste.
The Research Council of Norway has appointed Sarfraz as an “outstanding young researcher” (Fremragende ung forsker) and awarded his project NanoFunPack a total of NOK 7.7 million in project support. The funds are awarded to ambitious projects with focused research efforts performing at a high international level.
Two sides of the same coin
NanoFunPack, or Nano Functional Packaging, has two main objectives:
1: Increase the recycling of plastics used in food packaging.
2: Reduce food waste.
“The aim of the project is to use nanotechnology to find smart solutions so that plastics used in food packaging can be more easily recycled. We also want to develop even smarter food packaging to increase its overall shelf life and reduce food waste” says Sarfraz.
According to the UN, about 1.3 billion tonnes of produced food, or one-third of all food worldwide, is thrown away. Large amounts of plastic end up in nature and harm the environment.
Several complex operations need to be developed and adapted to work together for Sarfraz’s research to succeed. Reduced food waste and a higher proportion of plastic recycling go hand in hand.
“The paradox is that plastic is also part of the solution. Plastic packaging preserves the quality of the food better and gives it a longer shelf life. But we cannot use plastic packaging at the expense of the environment, which is why we need smart solutions and systems to more easily recycle the plastic used in food packaging,” says Sarfraz.
There are many applications for which this type of technology could be used; several types of absorbers and emitters can be developed that can attract or release liquids and gases at given times while the product is still in the packaging. This is called “active packaging”.
“In NanoFunPack among other thing, we aim to further increase the functionality of emitters by introducing better CO2 control inside packaging and introduce antimicrobial properties.
We also have great expectations for the development of green packaging solutions that can contribute to achieve longer product durability and support the green shift”, says Sarfraz.
More uniform materials
Plastic, with its many useful features, is ubiquitous in the modern world. It is a material which improves the daily lives of people all around the globe. Unfortunately, this comes at a cost.
The problem is that only a small proportion of all manufactured plastics are recycled. In the EU, it has been calculated that about 13 per cent of the plastic used is recycled, while in Norway the proportion is about 25 per cent. This leaves room for improvement.
“We want to use our solutions in combination with easily recyclable monomaterials and bio-based materials. This would partially compensate for their otherwise inferior properties compared to complex plastic materials, which are in turn more difficult to recycle”, Sarfraz says.
Sarfraz and his colleagues are also looking for new and better solutions for the sorting phase.
“We see a need to create better sorting solutions for the recycling process.. The sensors at the material sorting facilities use NIR (near-infrared spectroscopy) technology toseparate different types of plastics. This technology is unable to distinguish between food-grade plastic from other types of plastic that are same chemically but have a different history of usage. Since food-grade plastic is subject to a number of regulatory requirements linked to food safety, the food contact plastics are traditionally of high value, making it even more important to recycle it from a sustainability perspective.
Markers can improve sorting quality
So, sensors at recycling facilities are currently struggling to separate different plastic types based on their history of use. This is an obstacle to the final goal, which is to create a healthy circular economy for food-grade plastics.
“We want to integrate a new type of markers in food-grade plastic which can be detected by sensors during sorting. If successful, the new technology will be integrated as a plug-in to existing sorting systems in recycling facilities.
We want to develop a robust system that can separate food-grade plastics from other types of plastic, thereby increasing the proportion of plastics that can be recycled. That would enable us to create a more stable circular economy for food-grade plastics which would reduce the environmental impact and lead to future economic improvements in the industry”, concludes Sarfraz.