Can wood replace plastic?

Plastic packaging could one day be replaced by a derivative of wood, if European scientists are successful.

A team at SINTEF is looking at using a wood fibre only 100 nanometers thick to create a membrane that’s impermeable to gases such as oxygen and can therefore be used to protect foodstuffs.

MFC – or microfibrillated cellulose – consists of plant fibres that are only 100 nanometres in diameter, but can be extremely long, making them highly suitable as a reinforcement material for biodegradable plastics.

And while most of today’s plastics are petroleum-based, the scientists are now trying to create a climate-friendly alternative to plastics from bioplastic and MFC.

“Bioplastics can make a contribution to sustainable development,” says project manager senior scientist Åge Larsen.

“Our aim is to develop materials and packaging that will add as little as possible to our environmental footprint, and ideally, will be climate-neutral. In any case, as the oil runs down we are going to need alternative raw materials.”

Recycling has only limited effectiveness in reducing the amount of plastic waste, says Larsen.

“Recycling is useful, but in practice, recycled plastics often end up a step or two lower down the quality ladder than the original raw material,” he says.

“This is why we believe that MFC fibrils in combination with bioplastics will help us produce high-quality, environmentally friendly packaging in the form of products such as bottles, jars and plastic foil.”

Norwegian company Borregaard is working on applications for microfibrillated cellulose.

“Participation in this project will give us valuable insight into the properties of this special type of plant fibre, and how it can be used in plastic products that are impermeable to gases,” says head of technology development Hans Henrik Øvrebø.

“We think that in the long run, MFC could be used in several of our new products. At the moment, we are in the process of reconfiguring one of our pilot plants in Sarpsborg to produce this type of cellulose.”

The first prototypes are expected in a couple of years.