The research is being led by CuanTec Limited in partnership with the Scottish Association of Marine Science (SAMS), Ireland’s Versatile Packaging and Northern Irish firm Kilkeel Seafoods. It has secured funding from Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) as part of the EU INTERREG VA funded Co-Initiative programme.
HIE head of innovation Gillian Galloway said the project has the potential to help tackle plastic waste and cut carbon emissions.
“Plastic packaging is recognised as being at the root of a major waste pollution problem, particularly in the sea and around the coast. This highly innovative project has the potential to help address this issue through reducing the use of plastic. It will also help cut carbon emissions from the burning of unrecycled plastic waste,” she commented.
A ‘world first’: Biological chitin extraction
CuanTec has developed a ‘world-first’ method for biologically extracting a naturally occurring polymer, chitin, from waste langoustine shells. CuanTec’s Paula Duffy told FoodNavigator that the process is a ‘huge change from the traditional, chemical based approach to chitin extraction’.
According to CuanTech, the process is environmentally sensitive, cost-efficient, requires less energy, and uses 95% fewer chemicals than conventional processes
“We have designed a biological method that uses a fermentation step – similar to how beer or yoghurt are made – which allows for a drastic reduction in caustic chemicals used. Our process is also much gentler, requiring less heat therefore reducing our energy consumption,” Duffy explained.
The project is initially focused on extracting the chitin from shellfish because this is a significant waste stream from Scotland’s food sector. “There is a lot of waste in that process from heads, shells and claws that are not consumed by humans. This leads to tonnes of waste being sent to landfill or incinerated and emitting tonnes of CO2 and other harmful gases into the environment. By extracting the chitin from these shells, we are saving all of those emissions,” Duffy noted.
The project is looking at the scope for extending beyond langoustine shells, she continued. “We use langoustine shells because there are plenty available in Scotland and the North Atlantic. Other crustaceans are being explored but the amount of chitin varies depending on species. We only use shells that would otherwise go to waste.
“Mushrooms also contain chitin and, in the future, we hope to develop a method for using them as a source.”
A biodegradable and antimicrobial packaging
The chitin produced can then be converted to the base material for plastic-free food packaging. According to CuanTec, this material has similar functionalities to plastic packaging with the added advantages of ‘natural food preserving properties’ and being ‘fully compostable’.
“In look and feel, our product is very similar to plastic packaging however this is where the similarities end. As our product is fully home compostable it will not leave a lasting impact on the environment like standard plastic. Our packaging is also antimicrobial so can make food last longer, reducing food waste as well,” Duffy elaborated.
“After use, our product can be discarded in home compost heap or food collection bin. It is fully compostable and will breakdown, within around three months, to its natural components which can actually help the soil. We are taking the chitin from nature and it will return to nature, without any damage.”
In its next phase, the Celtic Crustacean Collaboration will focus on developing commercial viability by building industrial scale methods for extracting and converting the polymer.
While scale is likely to drive down costs, Duffy said that the alternative packaging material is likely to be more expensive than standard plastic when it hits the market. However, she maintained this is a price consumers appear willing to pay. “Although still competitive, our packaging will be slightly more expensive than standard plastic. Research has proven that people are willing to pay slightly more for a product that will not cause lasting damage to the environment.”
Once production is scaled, the project will further test the product against industry regulatory standards and end-user requirements to ensure the packaging is food grade.
“Once we have our method scaled, we will be putting our product through all necessary testing to ensure the healthy and safety of users,” Duffy confirmed. “We take the health and safety of product users very seriously and our final product will be tested to ensure it complies with all allergy and safety requirement.”