Editorial Feature

Plant-Based Polymer Additives and the Drive Towards More Sustainable Materials

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Responding to the growing global awareness of modern plastics' environmental impact and the depletion of fossil-based raw materials, Palsgaard A/S, a Danish company that pioneered plant-based polymer additives, has developed a full range of plant-based alternative ingredients for sustainable materials production.

As plastics are utilized in an ever-growing range of sophisticated industrial applications, polymer manufacturers are continuously developing new polymer materials. These new polymer formulations have to be carefully designed to meet individual applications' demanding requirements in key industrial sectors, such as automotive and aerospace industries, healthcare, food production, and consumer goods manufacturing.

Tailor-Made Polymer Materials for Diverse Applications

The established industrial polymers' properties are often not well-enough suited for such a wide range of specialty applications. The properties of industrial plastics can be tailored by the incorporation of additives in their formulation.

Additives are chemical compounds added to base polymer materials to improve their processability, achieve desired physical or chemical properties, and extend the finished product’s life span. Although the additive's content is typically only a few weight percent, the impact on the polymer material's performance is significant.

Owing to their low weight and cost, corrosion resistance, and outstanding physical properties, modern polymers have replaced traditional materials, such as paper, glass, and metals, in many packaging applications. At present, packaging accounts for nearly 40% of total plastic consumption globally.

However, the wide adoption of plastics in the modern economy poses significant environmental problems related to sustainable plastic production and recycling. Whereas 35% of metal, 30% of paper, and 18% of glass are recycled, only 3-4% of packaging plastics are currently recycled or reused worldwide. The usual options for plastics disposal are energy recovery and landfill disposal, with very little value extracted from the waste products.

Plant-Based Polymers and Additives Can Boost Plastics Sustainability

The increased demand for more sustainable material production with a low environmental impact and carbon-neutral lifecycle shifts manufacturers' attention towards bio-based polymer formulations that contain low-cost sustainable polymers additives derived from plant extracts or biomass.

Plastics used in food-contact packaging are being increasingly scrutinized for potential harmful effects on food safety and human health.

Palsgaard S/A, a pioneering Danish supplier of sustainably produced food and polymer additives, has developed an extensive range of plant-based dual-use additives to fulfill these challenging health and sustainability demands. Based on its comprehensive expertise in natural emulsifiers for food manufacturing, Palsgaard's additives can be used both in food products and food packaging.

Palsgaard's original focus has been on developing and manufacturing plant-based food emulsifiers that play an instrumental role in enhancing texture, stability, and shelf-life for ice cream, confectionery, and bakery products.

The emulsifiers are chemical compounds that combine different molecular properties in one molecule. They act as surface-active agents at the interface between two immiscible substances (such as oil and water), blending the substances into stable emulsions.

To achieve this, the emulsifiers contain hydrophilic and hydrophobic functional groups at the opposite molecular ends. The hydrophobic end has an affinity to fats, while the hydrophilic end exhibits affinity to water. This dual affinity makes the emulsifiers ideal for mixing oily and aqueous substances into a smooth texture.

Rigorously Sourced Plant-Based Polymer Additives

Over the years, molecules with similar properties have found applications in non-food products, such as cosmetics, personal care products, and packaging. When added to polymers, in particular packaging plastics, they serve as plasticizers, anti-fog, anti-static surfactants, dye dispersing aids, lubricants, protective coatings, and mold release agents.

Palsgaard’s plant-based polymer additives, branded Einar® after the company founder Einar Viggo Schou, are derived exclusively from edible plant sources. These include sustainably sourced rapeseed, sunflower, coconut oils, and RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) certified segregated palm oil (meaning that the certified palm oil is kept separate throughout the supply chain).

Ulrik Aunskjær, the company's global director for non-food business, explains that Einar® plant-based polymer additives are glycerol and polyglycerol esters in chemical terms made exclusively from vegetable fatty acids.

Green Packaging Improves Food Shelf-Life and Safety

The two most important product lines within the Einar® range are surfactants used to reduce fogging and static charge accumulation in polymer packaging materials. Both products rely on the migration of the plant-based additives to the surface of the packaging material. The surfactants interact with the condensed droplets or attract ambient moisture to the surface to prevent large droplet formation electrostatic charge build-up, respectively.

The anti-static properties ensure that no dust and contaminants are attracted to the packed food. Simultaneously, the anti-fog packaging enhances the food visibility and shelf-life by preventing droplet formation and bacterial growth.

Palsgaard’s additives are mostly used in processing polypropylene (PP) and polyethylene (PE), which are the most commonly used packaging materials. However, the company continually expands the Einar® range with new additives suitable for crystalline polymers, such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET), and different processes, including injection molding, foaming, and coating. Due to the inherent food safety of Einar® additives, unlike their fossil-based counterparts, they are not subject to the strict concentration and additive migration limits aimed to eliminate taste and odor alteration of the packaged food and other health hazards.

Carbon-Neutral Technology for Sustainable Materials Production

The entire Einar® range is produced in CO2-neutral factories and from 100% renewable feedstock. The plant-based polymer additives are a perfect fit in sustainable materials production and a direct replacement for fossil-based additives in existing polymer formulations.

In response to the fast-growing demand from packaging and plastics manufacturers for sustainable materials production and reduced fossil feedstock depletion, the Danish company has invested 750 million Danish Kroner (US$ 121 million) in a new pellet production line with a capacity of 10,000 tonnes per year.

The expansion of the pellet line addresses the needs of extrusion and injection molding manufacturing, where the availability of pelletized raw materials enables a clean and straightforward manufacturing process.

Palsgaard is commissioning an advanced spray cooling tower with new reaction, distillation, and esterification plants in addition to the new pellet line. The investment is expected to further increase its manufacturing capacity by 30,000 tons per year, doubling the manufacturer’s production capacity for plant-based polymer additives in the next three years.

References and Further Reading

Palsgarrd (2021) Palsgaard’s pellet line expansion supports growing demand for food-grade plant-based polymer additives [Online] www.palsgaard.com Available at: https://www.palsgaard.com/polymers/about-us/news-about-palsgaard/2021/palsgaard-s-pellet-line-expansion-supports-growing-demand-for-food-grade-plant-based-polymer-additives (Accessed on 16 February 2021).

J. Poole (2021) Palsgaard powers up plant-based polymer additives production as fossil reduction demands peak [Online] www.packaginginsights.com Available at: https://www.packaginginsights.com/news/palsgaard-powers-up-plant-based-polymer-additives-production-as-fossil-reduction-demands-peak.html (Accessed on 16 February 2021).

Plastics Europe (2021) Plastics - the Facts 2020 [Online] https://www.plasticseurope.org Available at: https://www.plasticseurope.org/en/resources/publications/4312-plastics-facts-2020 (Accessed on 16 February 2021).

R. Geyer, et al. (2017) Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made. Science Advances, 3, e1700782. Available at:  https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.1700782

V. Ambrogi, et al. (2017) Additives in Polymers. Modification of Polymer Properties, 87-108. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-323-44353-1.00004-X

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the author expressed in their private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of AZoM.com Limited T/A AZoNetwork the owner and operator of this website. This disclaimer forms part of the Terms and conditions of use of this website.

Cvetelin Vasilev

Written by

Cvetelin Vasilev

Cvetelin Vasilev has a degree and a doctorate in Physics and is pursuing a career as a biophysicist at the University of Sheffield. With more than 20 years of experience as a research scientist, he is an expert in the application of advanced microscopy and spectroscopy techniques to better understand the organization of “soft” complex systems. Cvetelin has more than 40 publications in peer-reviewed journals (h-index of 17) in the field of polymer science, biophysics, nanofabrication and nanobiophotonics.


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