Futamura embraces cellulose and fossil plastics in packaging

Materials World magazine
1 Jul 2019

Andy Sweetman says cellulose-based and fossil plastics should be considered as complementary materials.

How does Futamura use cellulose?

We principally make cellulose films and, on a secondary basis, casings applications. We also have a cellulose non-woven division.

For instance, we make a range of films that can be used in most applications where you would otherwise use either an oriented polyester film or an oriented polypropylene film – the key difference being it is renewable raw materials and they are biodegradable and compostable after use. Our films are not just industrially compostable, they are also home compostable. So if you have a home compost bin or heap, you can put our films onto those and they will biodegrade in just a few weeks.

The casings is a sister technology where you take a hemp-based paper that is impregnated with cellulose and we use that to make things like sausage skins for foods, including mortadella and dried sausages.

The non-woven products are used for items including wet wipes, face masks, face packs, so largely hygiene and cosmetic applications. In the non-woven industry you may be mixing several different materials, but as we make each of those elements, we ensure they are biodegradable.

Where does the raw material come from?

The key raw material across the cellulosic products is wood-pulp from managed plantations only. We take that wood-pulp, which comes to us looking a bit like sheets of thick blotting paper, and then we take it through a process where we can then convert that into a transparent sheet. It has good heat resistance and clarity, then we put down thin heat-sealed coatings on either side so that is what allows us to develop barrier properties and heat sealability for it to work on automated packaging machinery.

How do they compare to fossil-based materials?

I think the key thing is, any material which meets the international standard for compostability tends to be naturally permeable to moisture and, in our case, through our coating technology, we can develop barrier properties, so moisture barrier properties, that are pretty similar to the polyesters and polypropylenes. The only thing we have to steer clear of is wet applications. This is because the first stage of biodegradation tends to be a hydrolyzing of the structure so, at the moment, nobody has yet cracked the ability to make liquid packaging for sauce sachets, flexible water pouches, or anything like that.

But, never say never. We are doing things today that we didn’t think were possible three–four years ago, so there is a lot of R&D and innovation going on in this space. For example, the first crisp bags made using cellulose are in the UK market. That is an application that four or five years ago would have been technically impossible. Things are moving on. We are now able to wrap dry foods such as crisps, snacks, teas and coffees very effectively with these materials. It is only liquid packaging that we are steering clear of.

How do the materials work with current machinery?

That is not much of a problem because they are built on previous cellophane technologies which have been involved in flexible packaging for decades. In the majority of applications we serve, it is basically a case of put the reel on, press the start button and go. There might be little tweaks if someone has been running plastic films. We might suggest one or two little tweaks to the way the machine is set up but that really is it.

Where is the company looking to progress?

We are always looking at new raw materials that might allow us to get into some new applications, for example, anything that would allow us to crack that final target of liquid packaging. Our R&D teams in the UK and Japan are active in cellulosic technology and continue to explore further increases in barrier properties. A couple of years ago, we would never have been able to wrap anything as moisture-sensitive as crisps and snacks, but we are now at that space, so driving barrier performance and looking to the future as well, we are actively looking at whether we can take agricultural waste residues for key elements of our raw material sourcing.

How are you finding the evolution of packaging materials?

There is massive pressure on plastics right now. What we see is that our materials, and other bio-plastic or bio-materials, are complementary. We are bringing new solutions to areas which are problematic. If you take applications, for example where there is quite heavy food contamination – coffee capsules and some direct food packaging or food service applications, or catering – those are applications where any form of conventional recycling is just impractical. That is where organic recycling such as composting is really coming into its own. We don’t see this as plastics versus bio-plastics, if you like, we see it as both of them together so we can use the right materials in the right applications. That is one element of what we mean by evolution. The other one is practical as, with such high pressure on plastics at the moment, the last thing society needs is an overnight ban because that would bring quite serious consequences in terms of food waste going up because none of these bio-materials are yet produced in the volumes necessary to directly replace plastics. We want to see a move towards these materials and we would certainly be keen to see the plastics producers embrace these new materials as an opportunity, rather than see them as a threat, because they absolutely are an opportunity for the plastics industry. But that needs to be done in a managed step-by-step way, not just a knee-jerk reaction.

How are people embracing such materials in the industry?

It quite often feels that it is a bit like with conventional plastics, people view these new materials as a threat. Whenever I talk to anybody in the plastics industry, my core message back to them is, ‘why are you seeing it as a threat? Why are you not seeing the opportunity in this? You have got massive market pressure on you and these are alternative, new and complementary materials that, in the right applications, can actually allow you to go forward’.

Andy Sweetman is Sales and Marketing Director, Futamura.