Shrimple solution: making packaging from crustacean waste
Prawn punnets and crab cling wrap could soon be a reality thanks to three young entrepreneurs who chose to tackle the fight against plastic packaging.
After winning the University of Sydney’s ‘Inventing the Future’ program, Michelle Demers, Jared Wood and Kimberly Bolton (pictured left to right) used the grant prize to turn their passion for the plastic problem into a business. The trio cofounded Carapac and now, two years down the track and hundreds of prototypes later, the ‘shrimple’ solution is clawing its way closer to store shelves.
The current trend in the bioplastics market is plant- and even petroleum-based ‘plastics’, creating slightly different make-ups of the same cellulose, vegetable oil, starch and acid components. The majority of these ‘biodegradable plastics’ only break down under specific conditions and that process can still take up to five years. As the market for plant-based packaging was tapped and there wasn’t as much room for competition, the team asked themselves, “How could we make it easy for people to be more sustainable?”
Their mission to find a more sustainable material base led them to crustacean shells, an abundant nutrient-rich waste source. Frozen food processing plants across the Asia–Pacific region cumulatively produce around 8.1 million tons of crustacean waste per year. “This enabled us to develop a packaging material built from the chitosan contained in crustacean skeletons as a truly biodegradable alternative to plastic food packaging. Given the little amount required to produce the packaging, our research shows there is a market for Carapac as well as a supply of chitosan that can keep up with growing product demand,” said Kimberly Bolton, CEO of Carapac.
“Just when we thought we couldn’t love a bucket of prawns on a sunny day any more, we were wrong. Crustacean shells embed anti-fungal properties that, when acting as packaging, prevent mould or fungi from growing on produce. Product shelf life can increase by up to 14 days pending the product type, making prawn plastic an excellent packaging option for fresh foods,” Bolton said.
According to the company, the material is safe to use for those with a shellfish allergy as the protein component that causes the reaction is removed. “That protein is part of 35% of the crustacean shell ‘waste’ left after the chitin extraction process and is turned into a feed for animals given its nutrient content. Interestingly enough, mushrooms also contain chitin, providing potential for a vegan product. This would mean growing a product explicitly for manufacturing, which does not tie into our ‘negative waste’ philosophy, as there is an abundant waste source available for use,” Bolton said.
The company’s ‘negative waste’ philosophy stems from the material being sourced from a waste stream, developed into a purposeful product and naturally repurposed at the end of its life cycle instead of ending up in landfill or recycling.
“Let us be clear, we do not support many current food packaging options and especially single-use plastic. Packaging, however, we do support. Allowing for product unitisation, packaging makes it easier and more economical to pack and transport goods. All over the world a pallet has the same measurements, and we are able to create logistics processes around this. Moreover, especially relating to fresh fruits and vegetables, packaging acts as a protection barrier during transport and also from bacteria, keeping your food fresh longer,” Bolton concluded.
Currently the cost of the new material is estimated to be three times that of traditional plastic, but this is expected to decrease as the manufacturing scales up.
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