Packaging technology professor develops alternatives to full plastic solutions and is a fan of the Finnish milk carton

Europe is introducing more stringent regulations to mitigate plastic pollution and to recycle plastic packages. LUT is tackling the plastic waste issue by developing fibre-based packaging that only has a thin layer of plastic.

Paperboard packaging solutions are in the best interest of the packaging industry. LUT University has a lengthy background in research on the use of paperboard. According to Ville Leminen, Professor of Packaging Technology, the current packaging trend is to use a thin polymer layer as a barrier (against e.g. oxygen) in a fibre-based product. In the future, the barrier could be something other than plastic.

"If the amount of plastic in packages were cut in half, it would translate to significant reductions in plastic in products of large volumes. The plastic layer in liquid packaging board has already been successfully made thinner. Also mechanical paperboard mass has been further developed", Leminen explains.

Reducing plastic is a worthwhile objective. LUT's Mechanical Engineering department is developing fibre materials to replace conventional oil-based materials. Bio-based dispersion coating is even being studied by its own dedicated researchers.

"In the Laboratory of Packaging Technology, we manufacture paperboard with different coatings. We have access to converting devices with which we can examine formability. Our production machines closely resemble actual industrial scale machinery", Leminen says.

Fibre is ecological

LUT's research deals with the press forming, heat sealing, packaging technologies and packaging machines of fibre-based materials. New packages are designed in collaboration with the food industry, forest industry, producers of packaging materials and machines, and other research institutes.

According to Leminen, packaging solutions have advanced leaps and bounds in terms of ecology in the past five years.

"However, the functionality of inventions made today may be completely different five years from now. We need to keep developing these solutions and making new initiatives".

Also universities of applied sciences need to pitch in. The packaging technology professor points out that for instance in the LUT Group, education based on scientific research complements the more practically oriented education in universities of applied sciences, and vice versa.

Our mission at the university is to test and develop fibre-based solutions in a reliable, industrial scale environment.

"The university contributes knowledge related to packaging technology, and the Lahti Institute of Design explores packaging design. Packaging technology requires expertise in both areas".

For ecological solutions to be adopted on a significant scale, their production costs must be competitive compared to those of other solutions. In addition, no matter what the material, the manufacturing technology must be able to form it into a package.

"The solutions must be processable from the viewpoint of production, materials and design. This must be taken into consideration in development work", Leminen outlines.

Ecological solutions should also be efficiently publicised because consumers interpret fibre-based packaging as a sign of environmental friendliness.

"The challenge is communicating to customers that the package brings added value compared to its predecessors. Consumers are not able to evaluate this aspect without additional information. For example, a package made 90% of paperboard is 90% biodegradable. The future development of material and production processes could decrease the amount of plastic even more".

The commercialisation of innovations requires collaboration from retailers

For producers, a good package is a functional one. For example, biodegradable food packaging is suitable for items with a short shelf life. Products with strict cold chain requirements may profit from an airtight container with a smart label that testifies to its safety.

"The Tempix temperature indicator on Lidl's salmon filet packages is an excellent example of this. It has advanced to a commercial application. I believe that such solutions will multiply in the future".

LUT is developing oxygen and spoilage indicators in collaboration with Åbo Akademi University and VTT. The indicator reacts to oxygen and changes colour if a leak occurs.

"The attitudes of retail stores hinder the entry of innovations into markets because innovations come with a price tag. On the other hand, retailers may also see their advantage when the safety of the product is visibly verifiable and the shelf life expands".

Leminen says that on a larger scale, packaging innovations impact responsibility issues. Innovations can tell the consumer when a product is safe to eat.

Challenge of recycling plastic acknowledged

Recycling regulations, the development of substitutes for plastic, corporate responsibility and societal megatrends influence food packaging solutions. For example, urbanisation and smaller households increase the need for smaller food packages.

Food packages strongly affect the amount of food waste. According to the packaging technology professor, also digitalisation reduces food waste.

"Smart packages will soon start to communicate with refrigerators, telling consumers when a product's use-by date is. This decreases food loss."

Furthermore, people's eagerness to recycle helps to minimise plastic waste. Ville Leminen says that in Finland, people largely have high standards and good waste management practices.

"Certain plastic types are difficult to recognise. In such cases, chemical recycling is an interesting alternative", Leminen outlines.

A perfect example is the Finnish recycling system for PET bottles and aluminium cans.

"The market share of glass bottles has reached its limit in Finland. In Central Europe – Germany, for instance – you see much more glass bottles".

Globally, waste management differs completely from Finnish practices. In some areas, packages are still disposed of into the sea. Leminen wishes to influence the range of packages available because people use packages daily.

"To solve our waste issues, we need to find alternatives to full plastic packages. Our mission at the university is to test and develop fibre-based solutions in a reliable, industrial scale environment".

LUT University's packaging technology professor reveals that his favourite package in daily use is the Finnish milk carton.

"It's functional in production, material efficient, and easily transportable. Moreover, I've used it ever since I was a kid".

Edited version of the article published in the Pakkaus journal issue 3/2019.