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Green future for plastic bags

The world's first biodegradable plastic bag was designed and developed at the University shortly after its inception. Created by the world patent holder at the time, Gerald Griffin, the bag was designed to disintegrate when buried in the ground. Made from a material called Byoplastic, the bags and the science behind them were ahead of their time, with mass produced Biodegradable carrier bags only becoming widespread due to a renewed 21st century focus on climate change and the environment. When Mr Griffin retired from Brunel, his research was taken forward by current Brunel academic Professor Karnik Tarverdi, who leads students in exploring different aspects of starch as packaging materials, mostly for sustainable and environmentally friendly packaging.

"I would think that over the years we have had about £10 million of funding from different organisations and companies," said Prof Tarverdi, Director of Extrusion Technology at the Wolfson Centre for Materials Processing.

Going green

Other endeavours to create greener food packaging have been developed on campus. In 2014, Materials Engineering Professor Jim Song created plastic from plants to limit practical problems for industries going green - employing a cross-disciplinary team of scientists from Brunel.

Prof Song recognised that, while  switching from oil-based plastic food packaging to biodegradable plant based alternatives is eco-friendly, there remain a number of practical problems in going green. He found that in factories, eco-friendly plastics behave very differently due to their starch base, which can be affected by moisture content.

After teasing out these parameters experimentally, Prof Song enlisted mathematicians Professor John Whiteman, Dr Simon Shaw and Dr Mike Warby, who used complex computer-based modelling tools to address how green plastics would perform compared to traditional plastics when being turned into food containers for the supermarket shelf. Models were developed that could accurately predict the behaviour of the new materials. 

Tools like these are essential both in the design of moulds and in establishing raw material processing. Now packaging designers can confidently predict the wall thickness and the eventual stiffness and strength of green containers, which are produced in their millions.

Working closely with the world's largest manufacturer of biodegradable plastics, Plantic PLC, has enabled Brunel's results to now be adopted as an industry-wide standard internationally.