Over 60 percent of European consumers consider cardboard and paper food packaging to be more environmentally friendly than plastic alternatives. In the newly launched research project ReFiberPack, the goal is to develop fiber-based packaging solutions that neither reduce food quality nor recycling rates, while reducing the carbon footprint.
There are several challenges associated with using cardboard and paper packaging for food. One challenge is that many foods have a high water content, and fiber materials tend to attract moisture, resulting in both the packaging and the food spoiling. Additionally, fatty products often contain significant amounts of water.
In the ReFiberPack project, Nofima researchers will develop and evaluate new recycled fiber-based solutions for both chicken fillets and potato chips. Researchers from Norsus (Norwegian Institute for Sustainability Research) will investigate whether the new packaging solutions can contribute to reducing environmental impact.
Fiber-based packaging is attractive
For many food products, fiber-based packaging solutions with one or more layers of plastic, known as barriers, have already been developed. However, the issue with these solutions is that they tend to be more difficult to recycle.
"We are aware that fiber-based solutions with removable plastic layers have gained popularity. However, we also understand that consumers prefer to recycle their packaging intact, without the need to separate different materials. This valuable insight guides our ongoing work," says Senior Scientist Marit Kvalvåg Pettersen at Nofima.
In addition to developing packaging solutions that are capable of withstanding food contact and storage in humid environments, the researchers must also comprehend consumers' preferences and behaviors regarding source separation. Their goal is to leverage this consumer knowledge to devise solutions that facilitate the recycling of materials. These solutions are based on recycled fiber and recyclable barriers.
Starts by investigating possible packaging materials and barriers
The first step for researchers and fiber packaging manufacturers is to determine which components of recycled fibers are suitable for use. They will then develop and evaluate barriers and methods for applying these barriers to the fiber material.
Subsequently, various prototypes of recycled fiber-based food packaging specifically designed for potato chips and fresh chicken fillets will be developed. The researchers and food manufacturers will then conduct tests to assess whether these new packaging solutions ensure the food products' quality and shelf life.
"The objective is to enable the utilization of recycled cellulose fiber for food packaging solutions that provide effective protection without compromising the potential for future recycling," says Nofima scientist Kloce Dongfang Li, who is leading the prototype development.
Can consumers sort and separate?
When developing new packaging, it is crucial to examine consumers' attitudes and preferences.
"We have previously conducted surveys on people's recycling attitudes, revealing that approximately half of the population recycles, while 45 percent are uncertain about how to sort different types of packaging. We have also asked consumers about the key characteristics they value in packaging materials. High on the list is the ability to recycle the packaging as a whole, without the need to separate different parts. Other desired material properties include being fiber-based, preferably recycled, and additionally recyclable," explains Senior Scientist Valérie Almli at Nofima.
She further highlights that there are significant differences among various consumer groups. In the ReFiberPack project, researchers will investigate whether certain consumer groups display a greater willingness to separate packaging materials and whether it is possible to encourage consumers to separate them.
NORSUS will be in charge of investigating how consumer behavior when recycling packaging can affect its environmental impact.
“The role of packaging systems in reducing food waste is rarely taken into account. Not considering the amount of food waste generated can result in incorrect interpretations of a packaging's environmental impact,” comments Anna Woodhouse, Senior Researcher at NORSUS. The institute will further develop the existing methodology on how to account for food waste.
Facts about ReFiberPack
The research project is funded by the Research Council of Norway. Its goal is to develop new and recyclable food packaging based on recycled cellulose fibers and removable barriers, allowing for separate sorting and recycling of these two components. The innovative solutions will facilitate the utilization of recycled cellulose fibers in high-quality packaging for food contact applications, while maintaining the potential for subsequent recycling.
Nofima leads the project, with other partners including Norsus (research partner), Green Point Norway, Norsk Ylling, Sørlandschips, Borregaard, and Ranheim Paper and Board.
The full name of the project is Recyclable food contact packaging based on recycled fiber and removable barrier.
Short Name: ReFiberPack
Descriptive Norwegian name: Recyclable food packaging based on recycled fiber and removable barrier
The project aims to develop new and recyclable food packaging based on recycled cellulose fibers and removable barriers. This approach allows for the separate sorting and recycling of these two components. The innovative solutions will enable the utilization of recycled cellulose fibers for high-quality packaging applications in direct contact with food, without compromising their future recyclability.
Food packaging plays a vital role in protecting food products and maintaining their quality throughout the supply chain, thereby reducing food waste. Unlike plastic, fiber-based materials such as paper and paperboard are not only recyclable but also derived from renewable resources. This sustainability advantage has garnered increased interest and demand for replacing plastic materials in food packaging with fiber-based alternatives, in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Contribution of ReFiberPack
- The project aims to develop a new fiber-based solution for food packaging, reducing plastic consumption.
- The new solutions promote material recycling by utilizing recycled cellulose fibers and being recyclable themselves.
- The project seeks to develop knowledge and solutions that enable consumers to choose environmentally friendly and climate-friendly products while fostering more efficient source sorting practices.
The main goal is to develop innovative and recyclable solutions for food packaging using recycled wood fibers and removable barriers. These solutions will facilitate the use of recycled materials in high-value applications without compromising recyclability, thus contributing to Norway's circular economy objectives.
Positive effects for industry and society
ReFiberPack will provide new knowledge and solutions for utilizing recycled materials in food packaging. Norwegian industries can benefit from early implementation of these findings. The results will also benefit the food industry's value chain, enabling them to reduce plastic packaging usage and minimize environmental impact to achieve sustainability goals.
The project will have a positive environmental impact by encouraging the increased use of recycled and recyclable materials in food packaging, leading to enhanced recycling and circular utilization of resources. Moreover, the extended shelf life of food products can help prevent food waste.