By Giovanni Perotto – Engineer and Researcher at IIT
Giovanni Perotto, Engineer and Researcher at the Italian Institute of Technology, focused his speech on smart materials and bioplastics, presenting a very interesting speech on technologies developed to convert plant residues into bioplastics.
In Europe in 2016, 55 million tons of vegetable waste was produced. This waste is unfortunately thrown, composted or incinerated, all solutions with low added value when not expensive.
Perotto explained how in a simple carrot there are materials that nature has engineered for the function that the vegetable must carry out: growing, having a structure, working as long as it is needed and then being reintegrated into the environment once its use is over. The macromolecules inside the carrot like cellulose, pectin, lignin and hemicellulose, have the function of supporting the various parts of the vegetable.
The focus of the research being carried out regards the ability to harness these properties to produce short-lived objects (single use, packaging) instead of using plastic. The aim is to obtain solutions to be used as an alternative to common plastic, making entire supply chains such as packaging and disposable plastic more sustainable from an environmental point of view. At the same time this will improve the economic sustainability of the food supply chain, turning all the plant biomass, that is currently being disposed, into a resource.
These are the focus areas of his research at the Smart Materials laboratory of the Italian Institute of Technology: the development of technologies necessary to carry out this conversion and the work on vegetable waste materials in order to obtain a suitable performance and to facilitate the implementation of new Circular Economy systems.
The goal is to convert what is available as a waste from the food industry, but to achieve this we need to get the raw material by involving companies that process food and asking them what is left over from processing.
During the first years of experiments researchers have been added and mixed vegetable waste with other biodegradable materials, with the aim of giving the plants new properties.
The last frontier of research is to be able to create totally vegetable materials: for this reason, a water-based process has been developed and patented that dismantles the architecture that the macromolecules have in the vegetable and then reassemble them with an organization similar to the plastic one.
As a result, we obtain a material that is plant-based (thus maintaining biodegradability) but with properties similar to the plastic we use every day. In this way we obtain the best of both worlds.
IIT then wanted to test these technologies in a real world case: together with the fruit and vegetable market, efforts were made to transform the unsold fruit and vegetable into useful material to replace the packaging on the market itself, as a clear example of Circular Economy.
The results of the research have led to biodegradable pellets with artichoke waste, wires for the 3d printer, alveoli to contain the fruit in the boxes and packaging made with vegetables, which do not pollute at the end of their life.
The packaging sector uses 40% of all the plastic produced in the world and the duration of a packaging is only a few weeks, while the plastic of the packaging resists up to a thousand years. This plastic, which is the most pervasive, is the one that is most easily dispersed in the environment and then ends up in the sea, fragmenting into microplastics and becoming food for fish, the same fish we eat.
The solution, therefore, would be to designate materials aimed to disappear, using materials that would currently be thrown away.
Why are these new projects not being used everywhere?
IIT has developed them to show that they are useful and exploitable; to take the next step you have to work with designers and companies that would exploit them.
The goal is to design new ways to use food industry waste. The next step in research projects comes from a Perotto and Simonutti project funded by Cariplo Foundation. The new project consists on working on another type of waste from the food supply chain: proteins, such as keratin from chicken feathers or textile industry, in order to develop a new generation of materials that will have various applications from technology, to bioengineering, to packaging.
Perotto concluded his speech by recalling that we have only one planet available: “we only have one home”, so it is our concern to do everything to save it.