Wrap it in apples

Emma Sicher from Free University of Bolzano, Italy, talks about the development of packaging material made from apples.
Emma Sicher

Emma Sicher is research assistant at the Faculty of Design and Art of the Free University of Bolzano/Bozen in Italy. For her thesis project, she researched materials generated from apples to package dry food.

Petfood Packaging: How did you come to write your thesis about this special material? Who did you cooperate with?

Emma Sicher: It is a project grown from the awareness that the western life-style and society in which I live, is being developed with little concern about the planet which, after centuries of accomplished industrial production is no more able to carry the burden of the impact of the human activity. Therefore, now more than ever, it is crucial to look for beneficial alternatives to those materials and systemic dynamics which are shading for our presence on earth. My greatest inspiration was the book “Good Design” by Bruno Munari in 1963. He writes: “Nature is the first producer of packaging in the world: every peel, shell or skin aims to protect its content.” 

So, I decided that I wanted to focus my investigation on a more coherent solution to preserve, transport and contain food. The food industry is one of the most critical industries mainly due to its waste in terms of edible (food) and non-edible (packaging) resources. From a theoretical point of view, it makes no sense that most of the food gets packaged into materials that are engineered to last forever. Most of the food has a short life cycle in comparison to its containers. So, by developing a packaging solution that follows the natural principle of acting as a peel for its content the aim is to get closer to nature again to provide a more sustainable alternative to the food industry.

every peel, shell or skin aims to protect its content

What if food-related materials would be easier to be produced everywhere, have shorter life cycles and less damaging impact on the environment? A glocal (local with global perspective) scenario, in which each region produces microbial cellulose sheets by upcycling local organic waste was also developed. This would theoretically disrupt the current system in which resources are being extracted on the other side of the world and being sent here and there to be processed and end up in the market at the corner. The project “From Peel To Peel” saw cooperation between the Faculty of Design and Art and the Food Technology team of the Faculty of Science and Technology of the Free University of Bolzano/Bozen.

Petfood Packaging: Tell us about the project. What is microbial cellulose, how is it generated?

Emma Sicher: The material is made by the fermentation (culture) of bacteria and yeasts with fruits and vegetable leftovers. The microorganisms in the culture nourish themselves with the nutrients still inside the scraps and create wet layers of pure cellulose. The layers are then dried and become sheets of pure microbial cellulose ready to be used. I made experiments using apples, beetroot, potatoes, hops, blueberries, grape pomace, and mixed leftover. 

Petfood Packaging: As a packaging material, which forms of content can it hold?

Emma Sicher: The material is characterized by nanofibers so its nature is to be hydrophilic. Therefore it appears to be compatible with dry food such as powders, flours, legumes, pasta, noodles, spices. Further tests need to be done to certificate this but we are quite optimistic. Paper is also characterized by fibers and is compatible with food.  

Petfood Packaging: And can you tell us more about the properties, like waterproofness, tear strength, etc.?

Emma Sicher: The material was explored through a series of experiments and tryouts in order to discover its behavior and potential. Because of its hydrophilic nature, it is not waterproof but techniques could be used to make it more water-resistant like heat, vapor or finishing treatments. Scientific papers state that microbial cellulose has a much more resistant tear strength than many synthetic biopolymers. Official data from our lab is being processed. The prototypes of food packaging and disposable tableware were developed through the most common manufacturing processes like shaping, molding, cutting, gluing and dying.

Petfood Packaging: How can the material be processed further, like coloring, printing, sealing against humidity (from outside and inside) etc?

Emma Sicher: The material can acquire the pigment of its nourishing source, for instance, beetroot microbial cellulose is purple. Or it can be dyed after its growth by soaking it into a liquid containing compostable pigment. The material can be printed but the point is that the inks should be as well compostable otherwise the final piece would be contaminated and be against its concept. Sealing is also possible, through an easy overlapping and pressing, through heat and also though compostable glues. 

Petfood Packaging: Can you estimate numbers for production of this material: production capacities, costs, type of production assets necessary, raw materials for the production needed?

Emma Sicher: My lab is marginally working on these aspects but our main goal is to investigate more in other possible uses of the material and uncover fields of potential. For knowing estimations an LCA and an LCC should be made but we are still in an R&D phase, so these steps are yet to come. Generally, the fermentation lasts from 14 to 21 days and the raw materials would be regionally selected leftovers from the food production.

Petfood Packaging: Do you know of any larger scale productions that already exist?

Emma Sicher: Middle and large scale productions exist, in Australia, there is a company focused on fashion, in Poland, there is one focused on the cosmetic industry and in the Philippines microbial cellulose is produced on a large scale because it is produced as a food called “Nata de Coco” from the fermentation of coconut water.

Petfood Packaging: What other exceptional sustainable materials have you heard of that you would say need to be developed further in order to get away from plastics in packaging?

Emma Sicher: Besides microbial cellulose, which is maybe more suitable for high quality and special uses since it is a purer form of cellulose. I am very confident in the development of algae and fungi-based materials. Both have many positive aspects concerning resources needed to be produced and growth efficiency. Microorganisms would still play a major role in the near future of material development so I am very excited to see what would happen in the next years.

Petfood Packaging: Ms Sicher, thank you for this conversation.

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