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Next under the spotlight for our Sustainability Awards finalist interview is the CITRUSPACK  project, a consortium which maximizes the use of citrus juice production waste side-stream by-products, demonstrating how natural fibres from peels can be used as a cheap and natural additive for the reinforcement for 100% biobased and biodegradable plastic bottles and jars.

Congratulations on being selected by the international judging panel as a Sustainability Awards 2020 finalist! Could you please introduce your successful entry and what’s innovative about it?

The CITRUSPACK packaging idea came from AITIIP Centro Tecnológico and the Spanish multinational juice producer AMC Group. AITIIP has been working in the plastics industry for more than 25 years and for 10 years it has been researching and developing materials and products using polymers from renewable sources, biodegradable and/or compostable, which compose the matrix base used in CITRUSPACK. On the other hand, AMC innovates to obtain the best use of all the components of the fruits and vegetables in their juices and is committed to not sending any food to landfill, achieving a zero-waste activity and increasing the sustainability of its packaging.

CITRUSPACK maximizes the use of citrus juice production side-stream by-products recovered by AMC, demonstrating how natural fibres from peels can be used as a cheap and natural additive for the reinforcement of 100% biobased and compostable plastic packaging, turning waste into a resource.

What are the environmental challenges in packaging that your entry addresses, and what impact do you hope it will make?

CITRUSPACK packaging was born in the framework of a European project as part of the LIFE Program, which is the only financial instrument of the European Union dedicated exclusively to the environment. CITRUSPACK has actively contributed to sustainable development and to the achievement of the objectives of the Europe 2020 Strategy on environment and climate change.

The CITRUSPACK Packaging solution solves two problems:

The first one is the inadequate handling of waste from the agri-food industry. The Spanish national production of citrus fruits is around 6 million tonnes, with approximately 1/3 of that weight being discarded in the production of juices such as skins, pulps, and seeds.

Currently, part of this residue is used as livestock feed, but its rapid fermentation makes it an environmental problem. In addition, due to its high moisture content, the transport of waste is very expensive, creating a logistical problem.

The second problem that CITRUSPACK is approaching is the inadequate management of plastic packaging waste.

Packaging has become an integral part of the daily life of society. However, the increased use of synthetic polymers (such as PP, PE, PET ...) has caused ecological problems due to their non-biodegradable nature and their non-renewable fossil origin.

According to Eurostat, packaging is the largest contributor to plastic waste with 63% (16 Mt) because packaging items (bags, films, trays, bottles, etc.) are disposable products with a very short useful life. In the case of Europe, society increases its commitment to the environment over time, and more and more people are making an effort to modify their daily routine in terms of waste management from home. The recycling figures for recent years demonstrate this commitment to recycling plastic packaging. Still, many end up in landfill. The CITRUSPACK packaging, through the use of biodegradable plastics, demonstrates that, at an industrial level, it is feasible to eliminate this problem completely, since there will be no plastic waste to manage.

The compostability of the developed bottle is in accordance with the standard applied by EN 13432 to obtain the industrial compostable certification. The tests included evaluation of the content of heavy metals and volatile solids, biodegradation, disintegration and ecotoxicity.

I’d like to ask you about the broader picture beyond your successful entry. ‘Sustainability’ in packaging is multi-dimensional – both in terms of objectives and challenges. Could you comment on the most important roadblocks you identify from your position in the value chain, and the kinds of solutions you would like to see addressing them (e.g. areas of technological innovation, collaboration, regulation)?

The European Commission presented the European Green Deal, a roadmap to make the EU economy sustainable and the Circular Economy Action Plan and Sustainable Products Policy have been published. Some single-use plastics have been banned, oxo degradable materials and some hard-to-recycle plastics will be banned. The establishment of reuse systems (such as consignment systems) will be put in place to ensure a stable supply of high-quality material. Additionally, national legislators must ensure compliance with the principles of the Packaging and Waste Disposal Directives. The reality in Europe is that, depending on the area, the disposal system: incineration, energy recovery, recycling or landfill have different weights. Countries with restrictions on the dumping of recyclable and recoverable waste have, on average, higher recycling rates for post-consumer plastic waste. However, more has to be said about new materials and organic recycling. Initiatives to promote them would facilitate the revolution of packaging, including biodegradable and compostable solutions.

Producers must consider responsible packaging, thinking about the product that it will contain and what is the best way to dispose of it, and also considering the recycling systems established in the area where they will be marketed. In this sense, there are plastic products that are more likely to be disposed of in organic recycling, such as those products that have remains of food and that are more difficult to recycle using mechanical methods.

CITRUSPACK packaging is a natural, sustainable and renewable solution that offers to the juice industry a new material made of their own pulps and seeds, that can be composted returning to the soil, contributing to a circular economy, and creating a new value chain.

An overwhelming majority of Europeans consider environmental protection to be important (95%). Almost 8 in 10 Europeans (77%) say that protecting the environment can boost economic growth. The results of the Eurobarometer survey on the attitudes of EU citizens towards the environment confirm the broad public support for environmental legislation at EU level and for EU funding for environmentally friendly activities. The citizen is the link that closes the chain, disposing of the container in the proper place.

CITRUSPACK provides an answer to a society more and more aware and committed to the environment. CITRUSPACK packaging was evaluated in focus groups with consumers with the objective of obtaining information about the prototypes. Useful information was obtained on packaging expectations, needs and on what consumers understand by sustainable packaging. Those consumers more committed to sustainability were predisposed to use compostable packaging and are willing to pay the higher production costs that this kind of packaging have nowadays, since the cost of natural and biobased materials is higher.

AITIIP with the CITRUSPACK sustainable packaging wants to contribute to this new generation of packaging in which several solutions will be developed and adapted to the necessities of the product that it contains and to a specific end of life, making it a responsible choice first, of the producer, and finally, of the consumer. The new developments need to be addressed thus, in a collaborative manner, between the brands involved, the packaging producer and the consumers with the help of regulations.