Can We Use Fruit and Vegetable Scraps to Make Plastic?

After 2016, EU got caught in a little pickle when China decided not to import any plastic waste anymore. This left the EU with 56.4 million tons of paper and 8.4 million tons of plastic waste, which pressured them to make a series of changes. One of which is the banishing of single use plastics from the European market until 2021. This way, the EU aims to reduce and eliminate waste, especially plastic waste, of which only 10% are effectively recycled.

Fortunately, it is not just countries that want to make a change. Individuals such as researchers and designers are constantly seeking out new solutions to substitute and eliminate waste from packaging. One of these individuals is a graduate student from Italy named Emma Sicher. She was horrified by the amount of waste that we are producing and putting out there. Therefore, she decided to try and find a sustainable alternative to plastic as well as paper packaging. Her studies focused on packaging that was most commonly associated with food items, in which she founded the company “From Peel to Peel”.

“From Peel to Peel” evolved to two types of biodegradable products; single-use tableware as well as single-use packaging. However, the success didn’t end there, as the founder Emma also won a University of Bozon grant, which led her to be able to continue with her research at the university. “My biggest goal was to find or create a material which would follow the logic of natural food protection,” she says. “After a broad material research, I found the SCOBY, also known as microbial cellulose or bacterial cellulose, and went through the most relevant projects developed with it to understand the potential.”

Depending on the food, either apple or potato leftovers, the cellulose will have a different smoothness, time of growth and colour” says Sicher. This discovery not only eliminates plastic waste, but has the potential to kill two birds with one stone. There are roughly 88 million tons of food waste annually in the EU. By partnering with food disposal facilities, she additionally adds value by creating a circular economy. “So, in the end, microbial cellulose crafted products would be used in the same area providing a local answer to the use of plastic and paper. Could you imagine eating dried apples out of packaging made from apple peel-fed cellulose?”

The next step in Emma Sicher’s research was to produce the material herself, utilising a variety of materials such as apples, beetroot, and potatoes. Next up they needed to test the durability and capabilities of the material. Through numerous attempts, she concluded that the material could hold different textures if differing processes were applied. Further testing resulted in the knowledge that the material could be easily dyed in basically any colour but that the material could not be used to hold water or oil-based materials without applying a coating.

In conclusion, the material has a two-year shelf-life and can even be recycled or reused when undergoing a special blending technique. The finished material has two main uses, such as single-use tableware and packaging material. Until now, the material cannot be used to hold liquids, but Emma has already set her sights on developing the material to withstand liquids as well. We will keep our eyes open to see how this amazing innovation will develop in the future.