Clemson students Sneh Bangar and Cayden Gates introduced their project, BioPack, at the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life sciences annual Cultivate.CAFLS competition this year. Their project was awarded third place with a monetary prize of $500 to further their research and development. These students are working towards changing the future of sustainable packaging.
Biopack was inspired by the goal of turning today’s challenges into tomorrow’s solutions. It is a starch-based film to reimagine food packaging across the commercial landscape. Rather than being designed for standard recycling, Biopack was designed with the goal of biodegradability. So often our waste finds its final stage of life in the environment, so the goal of Biopack was to counteract the problem of harmful waste in the environment and turn it into biodegradable materials.
The two explain, “The food packaging industry is a major contributor to plastic waste because most food packaging is for single-use purposes. Our goal was to find a sustainable alternative to plastic-based food packaging which led us to develop starch-based films.” Starch based films are not designed to be recycled in the traditional fashion that we are used to, and if they are recycled, the options are limited on how to recycle it. If bioplastic contaminates recycled polyethylene terephthalate, the most common plastic, or other chemical components, the entirety of the products could no longer be recycled. Consumers can sort their recycling and dispose of bioplastics in designated areas of recycling centers or find a bioplastic-specific recycling program near them. The team hopes to reinforce the starch film using Kudzu, an invasive weed that has caused sufficient economic losses for the southeast, to act as a sustainable and biodegradable alternative to single-use plastic. This will create a water soluble material that can naturally biodegrade in the environment. They shared a common goal of developing the invasive Kudzu weed into Cellulose Nanocrystals to create something positive for the environment.
The two major components used are Pearl Millet Starch and Cellulose Nanocrystals, which are both plant-based. Pearl Millet Starch has been underutilized as a natural resource, but Sneh and Cayden put their knowledge together to utilize this material as a packaging alternative that ultimately benefits the environment in the long run. Pearl Millet Starch is primarily used for forage and livestock grazing, but it requires significantly less resources to grow compared to other starch crops, essentially making it a simpler and more efficient way to create their starch-based packaging. As a result of their material usage, Biopack is designed to completely degrade within 3-4 weeks of disposal, as compared to several years for single-use plastic. The best way to dispose of Biopack is by composting. It is designed to degrade into water or slil quickly and provice natural nourishment to the environment. If disposed of into waste bins, the packaging will biodegrade on its own.
Biopack is still in its beginning stages, but Sneh and Cayden plan to push their product to become applicable for commercial use. Developing Biopack for commercial use will reduce plastic waste that is harmful to the Earth, wildlife, and humans. “We hope to produce a film that can coexist with current manufacturing operations. Our focus is to develop active packaging films for wider market acceptability” (Bangar). The future of sustainable packaging lies within the curiosity and creativity of students, and Sneh and Cayden have demonstrated that together, we can strive for a better future with the right ideas.