According to a study carried out by the organization WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) based on a World Bank survey in 2019, Brazil is the fourth country in the world to produce more plastic waste. About 11 thousand tons of this type of waste are produced annually and only 1.28% is recycled in the country. In order to find an alternative to non-degradable plastic, researchers from the Faculty of Chemical Engineering (FEQ) and Food Engineering (FEA) at Unicamp developed a biodegradable and edible plastic, composed of starch and gelatin.
Bioplastic is obtained by the extrusion process in which the starch and gelatin are inserted in a machine, where they are subjected to high pressure, without the addition of any solvent. Then they go through a blowing process, which gives the shape of a biofilm. The development took place during the doctorate of researcher Farayde Matta Fakhouri, supervised by professor Lucia Helena Inoocentini Mei, from FEQ, and professor Fernanda Paula Collares Queiroz, from FEA.
During his doctorate, and after an extensive search for data in national and international repositories, Farayde identified that there were flexible bioplastics produced with other biodegradable polymers, but not just blown with edible materials. The absence of a product based on edible and non-toxic material led the researcher to seek the development of a process that would make this alternative viable. The positive results led to an unprecedented solution, based on starch and gelatin, which made it possible for the Innovation Agency Inova Unicamp to apply for a patent with the National Institute of Industrial Property (INPI).
“Our plastic is non-toxic and can be used in toys and children’s articles after cleaning. This way, if a child puts it in his mouth, there will be no problem”, explains professor Lucia Mei.
Until reaching the correct consistency that would provide the blowing in a film, several starches (native and modified) with different proportions of gelatin were tested. “The tests were essential for us to be able to reach a formulation that can be blown without adding any additives or other types of compounds,” said Farayde.
According to the researcher, in addition to the combination enabling the film form, when the technology is inserted in a product, it results in more brightness and flexibility according to the desired proportion. The researcher explained that the amount of gelatin can contribute to both a more flexible product and a more rigid one.
The versatility of this plastic allows an application in several industrial sectors: cosmetics, hygiene products, medicines and disposable products, mainly plastic packages that are generally composed of synthetic polymers. It can be used in both primary and secondary packaging, and if you pack the product before the final packaging, it can also be edible.
With a focus on serving these diverse sectors, the company Attomo has licensed the technology with the support of Inova and intends to produce the biofilm and commercialize it. The company has been working in the market for seven years with the manufacture of compounds for use in plastic and disposable materials, and considered licensing aiming at the high demand for more sustainable products.
“What encouraged us to license the technology was the worldwide appeal for biodegradable plastic, mainly in the concern with the use of straw. Our idea is to produce sustainable raw material for companies that manufacture it,” commented Ângelo Gonçalves, commercial consultant for Attomo.
The company also intends to focus on starches from Brazilian vegetables. Moacir Brotto, chemist and director of Attomo, comments that he intends to invest in the use of cassava starch, which has a lower cost and is more competitive in the market.