Using microbial cellulose as sustainable packaging material
For her bachelor project at the Free University of Bolzano-Bozen in 2017, Italy-based designer Emma Sicher developed microbial cellulose made from fruits and vegetables leftovers as a sustainable packaging material.
Sicher’s research, called From Peel to Peel, started from the notion that long life cycle materials are used to package food, which has a short life cycle. Many food items are packaged in plastic, a material that has dramatic effects on the environment. Sicher decided to focus on creating a more sustainable packaging material with a shorter lifespan.
Sicher quotes Italian artist, designer and inventor Bruno Munari: “Nature is the first producer of packaging in the world: every peel, shell or skin aims to protect its content.” Starting from this perspective, she decided on designing an artificial peel made from biodegradable material.
Her choice fell on microbial cellulose, a material made by the fermentation culture of bacteria and yeast, also known as scoby, with fruits and vegetable leftovers. The bacteria create layers of cellulose, forming a gelatinous substance, which is subsequently left to rest for a while, before it is heated and dried. Once dried, the sheet turns into a translucent sheet of material.
Through a series of try-outs and experiments, Sicher explored the material’s behaviour and potential. Through a hands-on approach and with the help of the Food Technology Team of the Science and Technology Faculty, she developed some prototypes through the most compatible manufacturing process.
Depending of the types of fruit and vegetables, as well as the type of surface the material is dried on, different colours and textures can be achieved. The cellulose requires less energy to produce than plastic or paper, and has a much less damaging effect on the environment.
“Starting from Munari’s standpoint, the project speculates a future scenario of ‘closed-cycle system’ starting by the production of microbial cellulose in local settings by taking advantage of the local food scraps,” Sicher states. The packaging material can be used for ‘dry’ food, such as pasta, cereal, legumes and candies. The microbial cellulose is hydrophilic, so food that contains a lot of liquid or fat is not suitable. When it comes into contact with liquid, the material absorbs water and releases probiotics. Sicher is exploring the possibility for natural coatings and manufacturing solutions to make the material more water-repellent.
If preserved in the right conditions, the packaging material has a self life of two years without biodegrading.
The From Peel to Peel project won a research grant from the university, which is used to explore the possibilities of industrial production, as well as research other possible potentials and applications of microbial cellulose.
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Photos: Emma Sicher