Finland-based VTT Technical Research Centre is piloting a new transparent cellulose film that it says is indistinguishable from the traditional oil-based plastic used until now. The development is a significant one: Thin plastic films are nevertheless difficult to recycle, and they often end up in the wrong places after use.
In packaging, these thin plastic films are often combined in various ways with cardboard, either as plastic windows or even in alternating layers of fibres and plastic. This type of packaging often ends up being disposed of as mixed waste as consumers find it difficult to know where it should go. If it lands in a cardboard recycling bin, the plastic can be removed, but it then usually incinerated. The new regenerated cellulose film product can replace plastic simplifies these choices for consumers as it can be placed in cardboard recycling along with the rest of the packaging.
“Cellulose film can resist dampness, but in nature it disappears as completely as a sheet of paper does. The product is biobased and biodegradable”, said VTT Research Professor Ali Harlin.
Scientists at VTT have been researching cellulose films for more than ten years, and have been working on the use of regenerated or recrystallised cellulose for the past six.
The production of packaging material is in the pilot phase, and it could be in extensive industrial use in 5–7 years.
For Finland, packaging material is becoming more and more important as a replacement for the paper that was so long one of the mainstays of the its forestry industry. The country has made a strategic push over the past decade towards more circular and bioeconomic development and, in the light of the shrinking paper market ,has sought to shift the focus towards more value-added innovations. Flexible, transparent cellulose film is one such product. The world market for plastic films was about 110 billion dollars last year.
Last year the value of sales of cardboard exceeded that of paper in Finland for the first time.