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From Unrecyclable Multilaminate Materials to a Bio-based Polymer with Superior Performance Properties

Transitioning from multilaminate sachet design via bio-based PEF use and chain stores collection areas to generate minimum recycling volumes

Photo of Ricardo Raphael Corona-Moreno
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Multilaminate small packaged goods are widely used to distribute sauces, lotions, and myriad other liquid-viscous goods that require a high Oxygen Barrier, Abrasion Resistance, and Hassle-Free Tearability. However, they come at a high cost to the environment in many ways: 


  1. Recyclability: Unilever has developed a method to recycle multilaminate materials, but the recovery cost is still prohibitive. The flexibility of the packets makes them nearly impossible to process using the same setups for bottles.  
  2. Source: The polymer components of multilaminate materials are typically sourced from fossil fuels. 
  3. Size: Due to their small size, they are difficult to collect if placed in a trash reclaiming scheme. 
  4. Discarding: High portability means they are easy to throw away anywhere in the environment. 
  5. Post-Use Contamination: The contained material (sauces, lotion, etc) continues to contaminate the package after use.
  6. Lifetime: Sauces in packages have an extremely limited lifetime due to low oxygen barrier of existing multilaminate materials. A pack of ketchup goes rancid in under 9 months. For sauces with fats in them, the expiration is between 2-5 months. 


Large restaurant chains that cater to on-the-go customers present a ripe opportunity to replace their multilaminate sauce packets with sachets made from single-source polymers with a high oxygen barrier. Most restaurants have already made it easy for end-users to obtain their condiments, thus enabling restaurants to add on to this a receptacle area where they can place their emptied sauce packets. 


A candidate material with a high oxygen barrier and flexibility is Polyethylene Furanoate (PEF), which is very similar to Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) in its structure and has already been introduced by the Coca-Cola Company for use in bottles. 


Compared to PET, however, PEF actually has many technical advantages:


  • 10x Oxygen Barrier of PET
  • 2x Water Vapor Barrier of PET
  • 4x CO2 Barrier of PET
  • Glass Transition Temperature (Tg) of 190.4 F is 53.6 F higher than PET (for withstanding heat)
  • Melting Temperature is 86 F lower than PET (for processing)
  • Tensile modulus 1.6 x of PET. 

 

Even though PEF has about a 5% higher density than PET, it could make lighter bottles by thin-walling and/or eliminating barrier layers. Processing PEF into thin and flexible packaging reduces many of the environmental issues currently surrounding sachets: 


  • Recyclability: PEF is completely recyclable, and with processing can be upcycled into thin films, fibers, and other form factors. Infrastructurally, PEF can be recycled using current PET recycling systems, with possibilities to blend with PET streams up to 5% without impacting performance.
  • Source: PEF’s chemical precursors, Furandicarboxylic Acid (FDCA) and Ethylene Glycol (EG), can be completely bio-sourced. EG can also be synthesized directly from CO2 using chemistry Avantium has recently acquired
  • Size: By redesigning sauce packaging to be more environmentally friendly, larger package sizes could be introduced to match typical portion sizes by region. For example, Australia created a different single use package with 14g serving size (compared to the standard US 9g) and without the need to tear off a film. 
  • Discarding: Introducing an in-store recycling program will incentivize users to throw trash in correct receptacles instead of the standard trash bins.
  • Contamination: If collected as part of a recycling program in retail shops, the concentration of PEF sachets would make it economically feasible to process materials to clean before recycling. 
  • Lifetime: The high oxygen barrier of PEF should significantly extend the lifetime of sauce packages.  


In sum, introducing PEF and an associated collection program within the largest users of sauce packaging will create a complete recycling solution and effectively extend the lifetime of the goods that are stored in packaging. 



(Australian ketchup packet design)


This concept is independent of region, as the current multilaminate products are cheap and abundant worldwide. It would be most relevant in areas that have a high density of fast food chains which distribute sachets. 

Heinz and McDonald’s are currently two of the largest producers of ketchup products in the United States. In particular, McDonald’s presents us with an interesting use-case and potential industry partner, as they control both extremes of the sauce package supply chain. Their supply chain centralization and recent redesigning of restaurant spaces could make it easier for McDonald’s to promote the recycling of these packages. 


Using McDonalds’ franchises in per capita, we get a proxy of target nations where this could be successfully implemented at scale:


1. United States - .433 per 10,000 people.

2. New Zealand - .369 per 10,000 people.

3. Canada - .352 per 10,000 people.

 

For initial pilots, small American cities with a massive per capita density of fast food restaurants could be the first targets. The top 3 cities in the United States with fast food density are:

 

#3. West Virginia: Beckley

Population: 17,529

Fast Food Restaurants per 10K People: 10.84

 

#2. Oklahoma: Durant

Population: 16,507

Fast Food Restaurants per 10K People: 10.90

 

#1. Kentucky: Paducah

Population: 25,046

Fast Food Restaurants per 10K People: 13.18

Our largest concern is designing pilots that would enable a critical mass of small PEF packages to be agglomerated and recycled. This would incentivize regional PET recyclers to create a separate recycling stream for PEF.  In the case of vertically integrated package companies, for example McDonald’s, critical mass would be easier to achieve due to their large store footprint and influence over package manufacturers. 


Initial pilots in smaller American towns with a high density of fast food chains would simplify customer point of access, behavioral education, and package consolidation between multiple franchises in the same city. Success in a few chains could then be expanded city-wide to promote recycling programs for PEF products.


For this idea, we are primarily concerned with the following 3 problems and believe the accelerator program will help us address them head-on: 


  1. Funds/resources to work with an industrial designer to rethink the form factor for use and recyclability
  2. Funds/resources to collaborate with external partners developing PEF for qualification and testing of the design
  3. If the design requires the use of other materials for successful implementation, the brand name and funds to draw in other startups/materials developers to combine PEF with another environmentally friendly material in a way which would not impact overall recyclability 


Idea Title

Simplifying the Sachet Structure with Better Materials and Improved Collection

Website

You can review our original longer format idea proposal on https://docsend.com/view/645zuc2

Where are you / your team located?

We are located in the San Francisco Bay Area (Oakland), California.

How does this Idea redesign unrecyclable small format plastic items that often end up as waste?

Introducing PEF and an associated collection program within the largest users of sauce packaging will create a complete recycling solution and extend the lifetime of goods that are stored in packaging. Compared to PET, however, PEF actually has many technical advantages: (a) 10x Oxygen Barrier of PET (b) 2x Water Vapor Barrier of PET (c) 4x CO2 Barrier of PET. Processing PEF into thin and flexible packaging reduces many of the environmental issues currently surrounding sachets.

Which use cases does your Idea apply to?

Small-format plastic packaging, sachets

In what geographical context or area does your Idea plan to operate / solve?

This concept is independent of region, as the current multilaminate products are cheap and abundant worldwide. It would be most relevant in areas that have a high density of fast food chains which distribute sachets.

How do you envision scaling up your Idea?

Our largest concern is designing pilots that would enable a critical mass of small PEF packages to be agglomerated and recycled. This would incentivize regional PET recyclers to create a separate recycling stream for PEF. In the case of vertically integrated package companies, for example McDonald’s, critical mass would be easier to achieve due to their large store footprint and influence over package manufacturers.

At what stage of development is your Idea?

  • Research & Early Testing: You are exploring an idea, gathering inspiration and information needed to test it with real users.
  • Prototyping: You have conducted some small tests or experiments with prospective users and will continue developing idea through these tests.

Please describe how becoming a Top Idea and working with the Think Beyond Plastics Accelerator Program will help to accelerate your solution.

Our goal is to refine this or our other polymer reformulation and user design-centered idea (http://bit.ly/2uH9zKY) with feedback from the mentors to launch a small scale pilot with early adopters. Joining would allow us to learn from industry experts to develop our ideas to meet the needs of industrial-scale partners. We are primarily concerned with resources to work with an industrial designer to rethink the form factors and external partners to developed PEF testing qualifications

Please describe from where your Idea emerged

As part of the research phase, we found work at Lux Research investigating bio-sourced materials as a way to improve performance as a byproduct of development around sustainability compared to the petroleum-based materials being replaced. As a result, we have been able to view the need for material change not as a restriction, but instead as an opportunity to improve product performance within the Circular Design Challenge.

Tell us about your work experience

Janina and I both graduated from Stanford’s Materials Science and Engineering program and worked together at MadeSolid, developing 3d printing materials.

Please describe your legal and organizational structure

We are not yet legally structured but have approached the National Science Foundation (NSF) about how to further our customer discovery process.

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Spam
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Ricardo,

As you are a qualified materials scientist I am wondering if you can clarify recycling into higher grade polymers.

When I made my own contribution to this challenge I was under the impression that if 1M polypropylene bottle caps were collected on their own, with no other polymers present, they could be recycled into the same high grade polypropylene to be made into other items, or bottle caps again, thus closing the loop. At the time I thought the process could repeat itself, like Aluminium. However, I since read conflicting information whether that is possible in reality. Some sources imply that it is; some imply that it can only be done once; some pose questions whether it can be done at all. Do you know from your studies? Do the same issues apply to bio polymers such as PEF?

I think this is a vital question regarding the circular economy and plastics in general.

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