Wheys & Means: Creating Raw Materials From Waste For Use In Packaging

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We are very good at recycling in the graphics industry: paper and aluminium are widely returned to the supply chain to be used as raw materials in other products. And manufacturers such as Ricoh and HP have programmes in place to reuse components in printing devices. But these reuses are just that, reuse and not recycling of materials to create new raw materials for other supply chains. Creating raw materials from waste is a fundamental principle of the circular economy, so scientists are thinking creatively about how to use waste from one industry to create something new in another.

Our favourite example of this idea is insulation made from sheep’s wool which is otherwise wasted. The wool based insulation’s 10% more thermally efficient than conventional materials. And it doesn’t collapse over time in the same way that ordinary insulation does. Printing and packaging companies probably care more about the creation of new materials, such as plastics from renewables or waste from other industries. Whey is one such possibility and it could have interesting ramifications for packaging printing and inks.

Whey is produced as waste from cheese making, once the protein solids have been separated out. It turns up in protein rich processed foods, carbonated drinks and fertilisers. It’s actually pretty good for you as it contains both protein and healthy sugars and has long been used in baking. Now scientists in Italy have come up with a method to turn whey into plastics. The product has good mechanical properties and has promising prospects for use in packaging materials. It could even end up replacing polyethylene which has enjoyed a reign of over 50 years.

Maria Beatrice Coltelli, a researcher in material science at DICI-UNIPI in the University of Pisa, uses whey granules to create a thin plastic film. The film can be layered with cardboard and aluminium to create a multilayered packaging material. This bioplastic is easy to recycle and is expected to eventually replace plastic film. 'We have tested how simple it is to separate the layers – it’s important to recover the polyethylene, the aluminium and most of all the fibres, which are very useful in producing recycled cardboard,' said Marco Buchignani, head of paper quality control at Lucense in Italy.

The use of bioplastics in packaging is undoubtedly progress towards improved environmental impact and recycling. The use of whey is also a clever means of recycling waste, however whey is already finding its way into other products. It is very high in protein and easy to add to foods and drinks to boost their nutritional values. The question of whether it is better to use whey for food improvements or packaging has yet to be addressed but it should not be ignored. Maybe the answer would be to create edible packaging. Now there’s a thought.

The Verdigris Project is supported by Agfa Graphics, Digital Dots, EFI, Fespa, HP, Kodak, Mondi, Pragati Offset, Practical Publishing, Ricoh, Shimizu Printing, Splash PR, Unity Publishing and Xeikon.

This work by The Verdigris Project is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/3.0/.