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Sustainable emulsifiers inspire safer, more efficient packaging additives

Just how safe is your food product’s plastic packaging? It’s a topic of concern for both manufacturers and consumers, spurred on by media coverage of potentially harmful additives, such as biphenol A in polycarbonate beverage bottles. And many other petrochemical additives currently in use for a variety of functional packaging needs are likely to present vulnerable targets for consumer and regulatory backlash.

Expertise and technology won from working with vegetable-based emulsifiers in the food industry, however, is inspiring new, affordable ways to lift safety and ease packaging production.


New kid in the pack

Just as sustainably sourced and produced, vegetable-based emulsifiers are steadily making inroads in the food industry, they’ve made their appearance in the polymer industry, too. Food-quality emulsifiers with familiar names are now presenting an answer to a key concern for today’s polymer business: How to produce safe, efficient and sustainable polymer products without worrying about the effects of migration into the foods they are there to contain and protect.

Essentially, emulsifiers allow oil and water to mix and form a stable emulsion, which is very useful in food production. When used in polymers, however, emulsifiers have different functionalities, making them suitable as anti-fogging and anti-static agents as well as dispersing aids.

For now, these new-style functional additives are primarily aimed at replacing less safe and sustainable options for three market needs: 

  • Reducing the static electricity levels inherent to polymer production and which attract dust to packaging both in production and on the shelf
  • For helping to evenly disperse colour pigments within the packaging materials, replacing conventional petrochemical waxes
  • For ‘anti-fogging’ applications, where the aim is to ensure food products, such as cuts of meat packaged in trays under polyethylene film, continue to present appealingly to consumers (countering the erroneous tendency of shoppers to believe that a product which has visible water within the packaging is in some way not fit to consume).

As you may have guessed, the last application on this list has a direct impact on the important issue of food wastage, enabling retail food outlets to extend the shelf life of such products both from a consumer appeal point of view and because it can also help to maintain the food product’s quality for longer.


Safety first

Just how safe are the new functional additives? A bio-based polymer additive entirely produced from vegetable oils such as sustainably sourced palm oils and sunflower oils is, in fact, safe enough to eat by itself! So using them to replace conventional additives is a simple answer to the worries of what happens when less benevolent additives migrate from packaging into the foods we eat. Moreover, commonly used food emulsifiers such as polyglycerol esters (E475) and mono- and diglycerides (E471), aren’t just safer and more sustainable, but they offer several additional benefits for manufacturers such as improved performance, faster production runs and a superior cost-in-use, too. 

Already, sustainable functional additives for polymers are expanding to offer better solutions for other manufacturer needs, too, including:  

  • EPS coating
  • Mould release
  • Slip additives
  • Ageing modifiers

It’s all good news for producers of polymer products such as wrap, film and packaging who have safety, sustainability and long-term business viability high on their agendas.

About the author

Bjarne Nielsen

Bjarne Nielsen has a chemistry background and has more than 25 years of experience with polymer additives. His main focus has been anti-stat and anti-fog solutions for a wide variety of polyolefin applications. His work has led to the filing of several patents covering the use of novelty chemistries. New bio-based plasticizers have also been a main focus area and has resulted in the development of the leading bio-based alternative to conventional phthalates, SOFT-N-SAFE. His most recent work has focused on the development of new bio-based material for several different applications, including phase changing materials, lube oil and fuel additives and solutions to improve slip additives that is used in packaging to reduce food waste. Bjarne is Global Industry Manager for non-food with Palsgaard A/S and can be reached via