The EU-funded REFUCOAT project has successfully developed a new set of processes for producing bioplastics for food packaging from renewable materials, with the aim of replacing traditional fossil-based raw materials.

Using these bioplastics, which include polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA) and polyglycolic acid (PGA), REFUCOAT has developed three different bio-based active packaging systems, designed specifically for fresh chicken, breadcrumbs, and crisps.

A key innovation has been the development of coatings based on bacteriophages which significantly slow down the growth of Samonella bacteria in chicken samples packed in modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) chicken breast samples.

In addition, low-quality flour, a food industry by-product that would otherwise have been wasted, has been used as a source material to produce the biodegradable biopolymer PHA via microbial fermentation. This material has been used to produce active packaging trays that can reportedly extend the shelf-life of fresh chicken products.

REFUCOAT has also developed for the first time an efficient process for producing PGA and its precursor in industrially relevant conditions. This scaled-up production apparently has the potential to reduce the cost of production of PGA, which has so far been too expensive to replace current fossil-based materials. According to REFUCOAT, PGA is a fully biodegradable material with excellent water barrier properties, and therefore, promising applications in food packaging.

Lorena Rodriguez Garrido, who works at AIMPLAS and the Technical Institute of Plastics, and is the scientific coordinator of REFUCOAT, said: “Packaging needs to be recyclable, while at the same time maintaining the optimal barrier properties needed to protect the food inside.”

Current complex multi-layer packaging made from non-renewable sources is difficult and expensive to recycle. REFUCOAT’s goal is to replace current packaging with sustainable, high-performing alternatives.”

The barrier and active coatings developed during the project are combined with commercial bio-polyethylene (bio-PE), bio-polyethylene terephthalate (bio-PET), REFUCOAT PHA and polylactic acid (PLA) to produce high-performance packaging structures for chicken meat, breadcrumbs, and crisps.