Could seaweed solve the fast food packaging crisis?

Flinders University researchers Peng Su, left, Chanaka Mudugamuwa and Zhongfan Jia testing the new coating for use in packaging. Image: Flinders University

Australian researchers are using seaweed to develop new materials that could solve the fast food packaging waste dilemma.

A team from Flinders University in Adelaide, and German biomaterials developer One.Five are using seaweed extracts to design natural coating to replace conventional fossil-based plastic coatings used in grease-resistant fast food packaging.

Grease-resistant paper is typically coated with plastic and other environmentally harmful chemicals. The new prototype coating meets the functional requirements of conventional grease-resistant packaging materials, while also presenting a non-polluting, circular solution.

Claire Gusko, One.Five co-founder said, “We are able to reduce harmful plastic pollution with this product, and we are also using feedstock that is environmentally regenerative.

“Seaweed cultivation helps to naturally rehabilitate marine environments, reduce greenhouse gases, and mitigate coastal erosion. It’s important for us to use sustainable inputs upstream to ensure our products are environmentally safe, from cradle to grave.”

The development – which took extracts from certain seaweeds, added modifications and formed degradable bioplastic films – has been led by Zhongfan Jia, lead researcher from the Flinders Institute for Nanoscale Science & Technology and research colleague Peng Su, in association with the Flinders Centre for Marine Bioproducts Development.

“Seaweed extracts have a similar structure to the natural fibres from which paper is made.”

Zhongfan Jia, Flinders University
Image: Ambitious Creative Co. Rick Barrett (Unsplash)

Dr Jia said: “The seaweed extracts have a similar structure to the natural fibres from which paper is made. Our novel specialist treatments boost the grease-resistance feature of the seaweed via simple modifications while not affecting biodegradability nor recyclability of the coated paper.”

Biomass for the new coating formulation is made from natural polymers extracted from seaweeds that are native to the South Australian coastline – which provided a key reason why the Flinders University researchers studied it for more broad scientific application.

Fast food and beverage packaging is the main source of plastic litter accumulating along many of the world’s coastlines. The initiative aims to have a transformative impact on the global packaging and plastics industry by significantly reducing reliance on highly pollutive conventional plastic.