Avoiding plastic or keeping it in the material cycle

The transformation of the economy from value creation based on fossil resources to sustainable material cycles and resource-conserving use of renewable raw materials is gaining momentum. Fraunhofer ISC has positioned itself in this context with "Materials meet ... Clean Environment" and sustainable material solutions for the refinement, efficient use and recycling of conventional and biogenic materials..

For the example of plastics, this means making plastics recyclable - e.g. as monomaterials with multifunctional coatings - or replacing them with more sustainable, biogenic, biodegradable materials.

Examples from current research

bioORMOCER® Barrier Coatings

Excellent award-winning packaging materials for the future

Polluted oceans, endless plastic waste and alarming natural disasters: We are constantly confronted with the global environmental crisis and are therefore required to revise our thinking. This also applies to the production and the use of packaging materials.

While fulfilling a number of necessary properties that guarantee the safe packaging of food, conventional plastic packaging (usually non-recyclable multilayer composite films), poses a major threat to the environment and, in this context, to human health. Improper disposal favors the penetration of finely dispersed plastics – in the form of microplastics – into the biosphere, oceans, soil, groundwater and ultimately the food chain.
The ORMOCER®s developed at the Fraunhofer ISC offer a possible solution to this problem. These are inorganic-organic hybrid polymers that exhibit the relevant characteristics of packaging materials, such as excellent barrier properties against water vapor, oxygen and the loss or penetration of flavors, and are thus suitable for the production of multifunctional coatings. Thanks to their high effectiveness, an extremely thin layer of ORMOCER®s is sufficient to ensure the required barrier properties.

bioORMOCER®: from “environmentally friendly” to “biobased” and “compostable”

Against the background of saving fossil resources and presenting alternative material solutions, Dr. Sabine Amberg-Schwab and her team optimized the material class of ORMOCER®s and thereby developed the material class of bioORMOCER®s. This variant of the coating paints is not only biobased and compostable, but also represents a more sustainable approach. This is because the organic-fossil components of ORMOCER®s are replaced by bioorganic components that can be obtained both from residual materials from food production and from biological waste. As a result, biogenic, readily available raw materials form the basis for the production of bioORMOCER® coatings. On the one hand, this “upgrade” promotes the recyclability of packaging and, on the other, enables fossil resources to be saved.

Being a further development of ORMOCER®s, bioORMOCER®s have comparable characteristics and therefore also ensure excellent barrier properties. For this reason, they serve not only as a refinement of packaging materials in food production, but also in the cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries. The possibility of applying bioORMOCER®s in the form of biopaints to biopolymers, conventional plastics or even paper widens the spectrum of innovative, biogenic packaging concepts and provides sustainable alternatives. Since bioORMOCER®s can be applied using various processes, it is possible to coat flat substrates as well as complex geometric shapes, such as trays, jars, and the like.

In recent years, the research of Dr. Sabine Amberg-Schwab and her team has been recognized with several awards. In 2020, they received the Deutscher Verpackungspreis (German Packaging Award) in the category “Sustainability” in gold.


German Packaging Award Gold Fraunhofer ISC
© Deutsches Verpackungsinstitut e. V.
German Packaging Award 2020 Gold in the "Sustainability" category
Sustainability Award 2020
© Packaging Europe
International Packaging Award (Sustainability Award 2020) from Packaging Europe
New Plastics Innovation Prize of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation
© Ellen MacArthur Foundation
New Plastics Economy Prize of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation

RTO Innovation Summit 2020

Dr. Sabine Amberg-Schwab on bioORMOCER® coatings and sustainable packaging

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Recyclable packaging films based on monomaterials

MoNova Recyclable Plastic Packaging
© Fraunhofer ISC

Plastic packaging is an integral part of everyday life. Whether in the food, cosmetics or pharmaceutical industries, they are used in many, different areas. The food industry, in particular, primarily uses plastic-based multilayer packaging, as up to now this was the only way to protect the packaged products against oxygen, water vapor, etc., while at the same time offering a lightweight, cost-effective and durable packaging option.

However, the drawback of this plastic packaging is hidden in the non-recyclability of the laminate. During the manufacturing process, the individual laminate layers are bonded together, but cannot be separated from each other afterwards. The resulting multicomposite films therefore have an inseparable structure of chemically incompatible plastics. This means that they can either be separated nor recycled together.


“MoNova“: a new generation of packaging monofilms

In collaboration with three other Fraunhofer institutes, Fraunhofer ISC is working on the “MoNova” project, which includes the development of an alternative to multicomposite packaging materials, thus enabling a circular economy that is sustainable and reduces the consumption of resources. The aim of the project is to replace precisely these non-recyclable multilayer composite films with monomaterials and thus provide easily recyclable, environmentally friendly packaging materials. In this context, the complete packaging film production process is considered with the aim of producing the new packaging films from (at least) 95% of a single base material and including the use of recycled material from the outset.

Composite and monomaterial film
© Fraunhofer ISC

“MoNova” is based on monomaterial polyolefins or recyclates, special additives and their physical as well as wet-chemical post-treatment. This results in a two-stage process that adjusts the new packaging films in terms of the properties required for their respective application. A functional hybrid polymer coating in a simple coating process gives them the necessary barrier properties that qualify them for use in the food, cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries. Since the material of the packaging films is reduced to one type of plastic, they are fully recyclable. In this way, they make it possible to ensure a material circulation in which the recycled materials repeatedly serve as raw materials for new packaging films.

Within the project, the new packaging film will first be used for the production of stand-up pouches for food packaging. Subsequently, its recyclability will be proven by reusing the material for the production of stand-up pouches for the cosmetics industry.



Biodegradable mulch papers ensure sustainability in agriculture: “NewHyPe“

NewHyPe New Hybrid Paper

Although fossil-based plastics – especially biologically non-degradable types – have many good properties, they contrast with today‘s future-oriented, environmentally friendly and sustainability-minded society. Fossil-based plastics are a particular problem in agriculture.

Mulch films are indispensable for extending growing seasons, influencing the water balance of the soil, or reducing pesticide use. So far, however, these mulch films have been made of conventional plastic, which contributes significantly to the pollution of agricultural soil or the environment, because they are usually not recyclable and therefore also end up in nature in the form of waste residues after a relatively short period of use.

Research institutes and companies from Norway, Finland and Germany are working together in the “NewHyPe” joint project to find a solution to this problem. At the heart of the project is the development of a sustainable alternative to previous mulch films, the components of which are made of fossil-based plastics and are to be replaced by biobased alternatives.

NewHyPe Mulch Film Nanocellulose
© unsplash

Novel composites: cellulose and ORMOCER®

Cellulose is the most abundant biopolymer and therefore offers an attractive basis for the replacement of conventional plastics in various applications. The major advantage of this material over fossil-based plastics is its ability to be composted. Cellulose is inherently biodegradable, which means that the material would not leave any unwanted waste on the field. However, moisture resistance and tear strength are inadequate for outdoor use. To equip cellulose with the properties needed for mulch film, these two parameters in particular must be improved.
The objective of the “NewHyPe” project is to combine cellulose-based materials and specific inorganic-organic hybrid polymers – so-called ORMOCER®s – to increase the basic stability of the composite material. Thanks to their wide range of functions, ORMOCER®s contribute to the formation of chemical bonds within the cellulose fibers. This allows mechanical and chemical resistance of the hybrid composite material to be adjusted. Nanocellulose paper has emerged as a strikingly innovative substrate in this context.

This variant of mulch paper results from the combination of nanocellulose dispersion as the carrier structure and ORMOCER®s as the matrix component. Due to their biodegradability, they can simply be plowed into the soil after their period of use.

Within the “NewHyPe” joint project, Fraunhofer ISC is taking on the particularly important role of coordinating, administering and managing the entire project. Thanks to its many years of experience and expertise in the field of coating development, Fraunhofer ISC is also responsible for the development, modification and characterization of hybrid coating materials – the ORMOCER® class of materials – and their combination with the cellulose-based base materials.


Website “NewHyPe“


“SUPERSMART” – Sensors, displays and electronic components directly printed on paper

The development of a smart environment for production, retail and logistics is not only important at the moment, but will also play an increasingly important role in the future. Intelligent packaging not only monitors transport and logistics, but also provides tamper-proof information about the origin and authenticity of the products it contains. In this way, they create added value by helping to optimize processes within this sector.

At the same time, both the packaging market and the electronics industry are undergoing transformation. The commitment to resource conservation, climate protection and environmental conservation requires stricter guidelines and laws. The permitted components have been regulated (REACH, RoHS, WEEE) and the use of plastic packaging in particular has been restricted (EU Packaging Regulation).

This means that the implementation of a “smart environment” in general is also dependent on a new approach: environmentally friendly, preferably recyclable, cost-effective alternatives to plastic-based materials and conventional semiconductor technology are required for the realization of sustainable smart packaging.


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Gerhard Domann on "SUPERSMART" and Smart Packaging.

SUPERSMART: Smart packaging made of paper instead of plastic

Paper is a long-established material that meets requirements for packaging materials in terms of resource conservation, climate protection and environmental conservation. Paper consists of renewable raw materials, is easily recyclable, durable and, if processed appropriately, biodegradable. However, it has so far proved unsuitable as a carrier material for electronic components such as sensors and smart labels. The “SUPERSMART” research project – carried out in a European consortium of eleven partners from industry and research – has now devised a smart approach that allows electronics to be printed on paper.

One of the major obstacles in the production of competitive, paper-based smart labels and sensors is the high cost associated with manufacturing the necessary materials. Until now, these could only be manufactured in small quantities on a laboratory scale, so that the overall cost of the printing process was high. “SUPERSMART” has therefore developed criteria for suitable paper substrates and solutions for industrial upscaling of the production of functional materials, high-precision aligned roll-to-roll printing of electronic components, automated assembly, and the development of precise process protocols for quality assurance.


Benefits for resource conservation, climate protection and environmental conservation

The results of the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) show just how great the benefits for resource conservation, climate protection and environmental conservation really are: on the one hand, replacing organic or inorganic substrates with paper simplifies future recycling. On the other hand, it reduces the amount of waste generated during production and at the end of the product‘s life. What is more, the necessary printing processes require less energy and raw materials than conventional semiconductor processes. In a direct comparison between paper and PET substrates, there are clear advantages in using printed electronics on paper. In almost all LCA categories – e.g., global warming, ozone depletion in the stratosphere or ecotoxicity, etc. – the use of paper substrates causes only 10–20 % of the negative effects of PET.

In the “SUPERSMART” project, paper, functional materials and production processes were adjusted to each other in such a way that electrical components can now be printed directly in a roll-to-roll process. The range of functions was exemplified by two types of “smart labels”: a shock detection sensor that can provide information about vibrations during transport, for example, and an intelligent tamper-proof label. Both can be read easily with a smartphone app. “SUPERSMART” lays the foundation for scalable, cost-effective production of electronic components that are printed directly on paper.