Because it is versatile, durable, and cheap to produce, plastic has long been the material of choice for food packaging. But this is starting to change. “Due to its large carbon footprint, high levels of pollution, and low recycling rates, plastic has become the scourge of the century,” says Isabel Alvarez-Martos, CEO and co-founder of Cellugy, a Danish biotech company. “With the threat of climate change now firmly at the forefront of our consciousness, society is committed to finding sustainable alternatives to plastic packaging.” Along these lines, Cellugy has developed EcoFLEXY, a sustainable food packaging solution. Not only is the material made from second-generation feedstock, it’s produced using a near carbon-neutral manufacturing process. Now, thanks to the support of EU funding, EcoFLEXY is set to become a disruptive force in the estimated EUR 28 billion sustainable barrier coatings for food packaging market.
A unique value proposition
As a bio-cellulose material, EcoFLEXY is highly recyclable. In fact, tests show that it can completely disintegrate at room temperature in under a month – a significant improvement over conventional plastics, which can take anywhere from 20 to 1 000 years to decompose. “Our unique approach uses ‘white biotechnology’, which exploits a mixture of bacteria and yeast strains that feed on sugars to produce a naturally occurring nanomaterial called bio-cellulose,” explains Alvarez-Martos. “This is chemically equivalent to the cellulose extracted from vegetal sources, but 100 times smaller in diameter.” During the EU-funded EcoFLEXY project, Cellugy conducted an in-depth feasibility study and competitive analysis. In addition to identifying potential applications for the product, the study also defined a go-to-market strategy, implemented the necessary technical requirements to scale up production, and secured required intellectual property rights. “By studying market trends, our competitors and available technologies, we identified a number of opportunities for EcoFLEXY,” explains Alvarez-Martos. “For example, we see EcoFLEXY as having a unique value proposition to replace the large quantity of multi-material plastic packaging that is never recycled.” One challenge the project faced was to find a cost-effective method for bringing the production process from lab scale to large scale. “This involved much more than expanding the volume of production, as it also required us to ensure that the product fit into packaging line machinery,” says Alvarez-Martos. “To address the issue, we conducted brainstorming sessions with potential partners and strengthened our team by adding people with industry-specific knowledge.”
Awards and accolades
Cellugy garnered significant public attention during the project. For example, it took second place in the Ocean Plastic Innovation Challenge, a competition co-sponsored by National Geographic and Sky Ocean Ventures. It also won the Advance Materials Competition, an initiative led by Germany’s Innovation Network for Advanced Materials, and took home the Innovation Award during InnoEU’s annual Global Innovation Summit. On top of all this, EcoFLEXY was featured on a local Danish television programme. As a result of this work and recognition, EcoFLEXY is now a big step closer to being market ready. “The commercial and technical readiness level we achieved during this project puts us in a position to become a market leader in sustainable packaging solutions,” adds Alvarez-Martos. Cellugy is now finalising an application for an EIC Accelerator Pilot grant, part of the EU’s Green Deal call.
EcoFLEXY, Cellugy, sustainable, biodegradable, plastic packaging, biotech, biotechnology, food packaging, plastic, climate change, nanomaterial, bio-cellulose