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Food and drink innovation is working its magic on shellfish waste. Meet the Scottish scientists using technology to turn discarded shells into a serious sustainable replacement for plastic packaging.

CuanTec's Dr Ryan Taylor and Dr Cait Murray-Green

There seems to have been a major shift in the public’s view about plastic waste, perhaps in some part related to the popularity of the BBC documentary series, The Blue Planet.

It's this ‘Blue Planet Effect’, that's got individuals, retailers, the industry, and Government, focusing in on reducing waste. The BBC itself is onboard. It's committed to end the use of single use plastics by 2020, starting with a ban on all plastic cups and all plastic cutlery by the end of this year. 

Other big companies are following suit. For example, NASA will even begin to recycle in space this year. It will use a combined 3D-printing and recycling machine to print out plastic components, that they'll then recycle and use elsewhere. 

So, with all this circular economy going on, both on our planet, and in a galaxy far far away, what’s Scotland up to? 

A better future  

Globally, 8.8 million tonnes of plastic ends up in our seas and oceans. To combat this, the EU, has pledged to make all plastic packaging recyclable by 2030. The Scottish Government, with the help of Zero Waste Scotland, aims to recycle 70% of all our plastic waste by 2025.

This sea change has seen researchers looking at sustainable alternatives to plastic packaging. And they've come across one with potential. They've discovered a carbohydrate polymer, chitosan, that’s extracted from chitin, a substance found in shellfish. This shellfish by-product can be turned into bioplastic film that be used to wrap food, replacing the need for plastic. 

And, with the majority of shrimp shells currently being discarded, the commercial impact could be big. 

According to researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, one species of plankton-sized crustaceans, the copepod, is estimated to produce billions of tonnes of chitin every year. And researchers predict that one plastic drinking cup could be made from just 200 grams of shrimp shells. So, it seems the way forward, in terms of packaging, is clear.

Scotland’s packaging innovators 

Scottish Biotech company, CuanTec, has developed a compostable, antimicrobial bioplastic food packaging, made from by-products of the fisheries industry. Instead of using chemicals, the company uses chitin from langoustine shells, which it extracts through biological fermentation. 

CuanTec then converts chitin into chitosan, mixing it with starch-based biopolymers, to create a biodegradable flexible film wrapper for food packaging. Using the process, the company can provide a high-quality product on an industrial scale with minimal wastage, that’s environmental friendly, and extends the shelf life of fresh food. 

The company is currently crowdfunding to expand its business and employ more staff and extend its facilities. 

We've worked with the team at CuanTec to support their journey, from innovative idea, to viable market proposition. And with retailers, seafood processors and fisheries showing interest in the technology, the company hopes their sustainable packaging will reach market in the next two years.

The plastic waste revolution: bags of potential 

There are lots of innovative pioneers and scientists out there, many based in Scotland, who have great ideas for tackling the global waste issue. Bioplastic films and carrier bags, made from by-products of shellfish, have real commercial potential. 

And retailers, as well as food and beverage manufacturers, have some great opportunities to be part of innovative, efficient, and environmentally-friendly technology. 

We’re here to help 

If you want to understand more about sustainable packaging trends get in touch. Our innovation connectors can help point you in the right direction. Our Make Innovation Happen service, is a free, one-stop-shop for innovation support available to the Scottish food and drink industry.  

If you’re looking for insights to become more innovative, we can help. If you’re working on something new or different that will add value to your business, we can support you. 

Whether it involves product development, your processes or employees, our team can help you explore your ideas and develop them with you, all the way through to market. 

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