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Self-decomposing "smart material" packaging

(Plastic) packaging made out of smart materials that decompose when subjected to certain stimuli (e. g. saltwater, UV-light, etc.)

Photo of Laura Scherer
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Introduction: why smart packaging

Wouldn’t it be nice to have packaging that autonomously reacts to changes in its environment? Embedded with a kind of intellligence allowing it to "know" when it has reached the end of its lifecycle and so it can change its properties in an act of "self-recycling"?

The idea that a product’s characteristics may change over time (especially after having been triggered by a certain stimulus) is also found in the concept of 4D-printing (in which the fourth dimension refers to the time-dimension representing the period until the change in the configuration of a 3D-printed object occurs). 

Smart materials

The change of the physical properties of an object is achieved through the incorporation of so-called "smart materials" that react on internal or external stimuli (e. g. pressure, magnetism, temperature, UV-light, etc.). Examples of such materials are functional fluids, chromogenous materials, shape memory materials, piezoelectric materials, and others.

Industrial applications for certain of these materials exist (e. g. self-darkening windows through thermochromous polymers or stents made of shape memory alloys) but I don’t know if there are any applications in the packaging industry (do you? then please comment below).

"Geometric program"

In order to obtain the desired change in the final object (e. g. a shape change in a certain direction) the configuration of the materials used has to be programmed geometrically, for example through the use of "variable property modeling". 

Vision: how smart packaging can help prevent plastic waste

When initially conceiving the idea I was thinking about plastic waste that ends up in the ocen, whose decomposition could be triggered through the elevated salt content in its environment.

I have no idea about plastic decomposition on a molecular level, but perhaps somebody in this community here does? Please comment below!

Further, I was thinking that perhaps one could develop a layered plastic packaging in which one layer experiences sharp drops in ph-value when the stimulus occurs, thereby forming acid and dissolving the packaging (this would not work in the ocean though because the acid would be diluted).

With this design it has to be discriminated between cases where the plastic packaging is not directed towards recycling facilities (for whatever reason) and cases where the plastic packaging end up in a dedicated facility. In the former case, the stimulus would has to occur naturally in the environment and in the latter, the stimulus could be inflicted in a controlled matter.

Further information

Here are some sources for further reading and information (please contanct me if you would like to have more sources or a discussion of the idea).

Idea Title

Self-decomposing "smart material" packaging

Where are you / your team located?

I am currently located in Stuttgart (southwestern Germany)

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

Given that the plastic packaging would know when it has reached the end of its lifecycle and autonomously decompose, no waste would be generated or at least only until the stimulus occurs.

Which use cases does your Idea apply to?

All use cases and personas, however, the stimulus might be different, depending on the environment that the packaging ends up in (park vs. gutters).

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

The geographical context would depend on where the respective stimulus is present.

How do you envision scaling up your Idea?

Given the abstractness and low maturity of the idea, research would have to be conducted first in order to obtain packaging that acutally behaves in this way. This research would concern the choice of materials feasible and their configuration in a geometric program allowing for the desired decomposition. Obstacles could be presented by high research costs, as well as regulations regarding food safety.

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.

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

Becoming a Top idea and working with the Think Beyond Plastics Accelerator Program would help me to find people that share my line of thought and have the knowledge I lack in the fields of biochemistry that is needed for the development of this solution. I am very interested in developing such an intelligent approach to autonomous recycling but need a team and funds in order to mature the idea to a point where a business plan could be conceived.

Please describe from where your Idea emerged

Last semester, I was part of a student research project on smart materials and 4D-printing and thought it an interesting approach to enable products to interact with their environment.

Tell us about your work experience

Operations Management student and process manager in two start-ups: GlobalFlow GmbH does consulting in corporate waste management, albfertil GmbH produces organic fertilizer from production residues.

Inspired by (1)

Trigger Film


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