New packaging, developed by Zume and Solenis, is a PFAS-free alternative for the global food industry.
In November, TIME Magazine recognized a line of biodegradable food packaging, developed by Zume and Solenis, as one of the top 200 inventions for 2022. Nominated in the category of Sustainability, the packaging was evaluated by TIME’s editors on a number of key factors, including “originality, efficacy, ambition, and impact.”
For Solenis and Zume, the final two factors — ambition and impact — are the truly defining characteristics of the project. Ambition because it was a bold move for the two companies to actively pursue a collaboration to accelerate adoption of sustainable packaging in the global food industry. Impact because the new packaging, made from plant fibers, is 100 percent PFAS-free without compromising its performance.
PFAS, which stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are used across a range of industries — aerospace, automotive, construction, and electronics — to impart certain functional benefits to different end products. For example, PFAS can be used to keep food from sticking to cookware, to make clothes and carpets resistant to stains, and to create firefighting foam that is more effective.
In the global food industry, paper and packaging manufacturers have used PFAS for decades as grease-proofing agents in fast-food wrappers, microwave popcorn bags, take-out paperboard containers, and pet food bags to prevent oil and grease from foods from leaking through the packaging. They are also widely used in molded fiber packaging such as clamshells, egg flats and toppers and food trays. Although they perform very well functionally in food service applications, they are under intense scrutiny for health and environmental risks.
According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Science1, multiple health effects associated with PFAS exposure have been identified and are supported by different scientific studies. Concerns about the public health impact of PFAS have emerged for the following reasons:
Mounting a Response
Curbing the widespread use of PFAS will require a coordinated response. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published the PFAS Strategic Roadmap in October 2021 to reduce the harm and risk of these chemicals to people and the environment. As part of that initiative, the EPA has issued four drinking water health advisories for PFAS. The agency also announced that it is inviting states and territories to apply for funds as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to address PFAS and other emerging contaminants in drinking water.
The goal of the government regulation is to encourage private sector companies to take their own actions. Accepting this challenge, the teams at Zume and Solenis aligned to develop a solution for molded fiber packaging that would provide suitable functionality and eliminate the need for using PFAS. Both companies were committed to a shared vision — development of high-performing, cost-competitive molded fiber articles that are PFAS-free and fully recyclable, repulpable and compostable.
Each company brought distinct strengths. Solenis is the leading supplier of specialty chemicals to the paper industry and brings decades of application expertise to unique packaging challenges. Zume brings engineering, equipment, and process expertise to manufacture products that function like plastic but are made from various biomass sources. These strengths dovetailed perfectly, and the resulting project teams were highly collaborative and worked hand in hand to innovate and develop the PFAS-free solution. Leadership from both companies was also instrumental, creating a supportive environment to enable shared inputs and outcomes and rapid iteration.
During the collaboration, the team identified and optimized multiple, critical parameters including:
Sustainable Solution from Successful Collaboration
The result of the collaboration was a comprehensive line of PFAS-free packaging, made from repurposed natural materials, that are suitable for a variety of food service applications, such as salad bowls and trays. Importantly, all of these products deliver the following:
Encouraged by this success, Zume and Solenis are continuing the collaborative work to develop solutions for long-shelf-life food packaging that eliminates plastic and foam. Many of these targeted applications have end-use requirements that challenge non-plastic-based packaging, but the development teams are making progress every day.
Solenis is highly committed to developing and delivering sustainable barrier solutions for the paper industry, but no single company can do it alone. We believe that innovation is accelerated by properly selecting the right applications to target, finding the right collaboration partners, and creating a high trust environment for the working teams. When these factors come together, it is possible to develop a groundbreaking invention that, as TIME Magazine says, changes “how we live, work, play, and think about what’s possible.”