Saving Our Planet with Lignocellulose

Randy Robinson

Randy Robinson

LOS ANGELES , April 11, 2022 () –

A sustainable future will require 100% sustainable materials. At the turn of the 20th century, industry lauded plastic as the holy grail of cost-effectiveness. Unfortunately, this versatile material is facing challenges in recycling. Globally, people are producing twice as much plastic waste as 20 years ago, but only 9% of plastic waste is recycled. Some of that unrecycled waste even reaches as far as the Arctic Ocean.

Plastic will always have its place in improving our quality of life. While we aspire to a future where all plastics will become fully recyclable or biodegradable, consumers demand eco-friendly solutions.

Right now, paper and cellulose fibers show great promise of being part of the solution.

Paper cannot be endlessly recycled, but the latest research suggests it can be recovered up to 25 times before losing its fiber integrity. Additionally, with proper forest management, trees are a renewable resource.

However, paper comes with some disadvantages. As we all know, paper starts falling apart when it soaks up water, and it is also gas-permeable, whereas plastic does a solid job at keeping out both moisture and air.

What about coatings? Paper can be coated to create barriers to moisture, air and other elements from the environment. However, coated paper is difficult to recycle and non-biodegradable. Without assistance from innovative science, coatings can prevent paper from attaining true sustainability.

Enter Specialty Cellulose

Cellulose comes from plants. So, cellulose-derived additives might solve some of the above problems. Using high-purity pulp, scientists create so-called specialty cellulose. What’s that? Think “designer cellulose” created for specific industrial uses.

Two years ago, paper packaging giant Smurfit Kappa was issued a patent showing that specialty cellulose can be mixed with pulp to improve the strength of paper.

Within specialty cellulose, there is a category called nanocellulose, which is a fancy name for pulp fibers arranged in special ways using chemistry.

Scientists have used nanocellulose to develop coatings that can kill bacteria and harmful microbes. After living through two years of COVID-19, who doesn’t want antimicrobial solutions that are also eco-friendly?

For those who think they can’t live without plastics, nanocellulose can even be made into a bioplastic film with many of the same traits as plastic.

After adding a bit of enzymes, researchers found that polymers made of nanocellulose are highly biodegradable, and people can compost these biopolymers in their backyard garden.

And perhaps there’s a future where candy wrap is both sustainable and sweet like the candy. Recently, a group of Swedish scientists found that combining cellulose nanofibrils with sorbitol and glycerol – sugar alcohols often used as sweeteners - could create a transparent film with oxygen barrier properties that outperform commercial packaging film. The researchers believe their sugary film could replace polyethylene wrapping.

Superhero ingredient?

With all that good news, why isn’t nanocellulose already saving the planet? Well, even for superheroes, a strength can also be a serious flaw.

Nanocellulose naturally absorbs water. And that’s great for improving the quality of printer paper by helping the paper soak up ink.

On the flip side, during the papermaking process, the hydrophilic nature of nanocellulose causes the paper to take longer to drain and dry, which translates into lower machinery productivity as well as higher production costs.

Also, hydrophilic packaging materials won’t do a good job preserving your products.

A Little Help from Friends

Researchers have been working on ways to overcome the water-absorbing issue by combining nanocellulose with other materials. 

One of those materials is lignin, the natural glue in plants that hold the plant fibers together. Lignin makes trees strong. The word “lignin” comes from Latin’s “lignum,” meaning wood. Naturally, you can find lignin in wood chips and bark. Other hard plants such as bamboo and sugar cane also contain lignin.

In papermaking, woody lignin is removed to make the writing paper smooth or tissue napkins soft. However, what used to be discarded as waste is now finding a new purpose in the paper industry.

Unlike cellulose, pure lignin repels water. And just this year, Stora Enso, a major papermaker, filed a patent for a coating made with microfibrillated cellulose, bark or cork extracts. According to the patent, this combination helps paper packaging keep out both moisture and air.

And repelling water isn’t the only barrier property that lignin has. A University of Maine study shows that mixing cellulose nanofibrils, residual lignin and maple wood particles can create a paper coating that repels grease and oil better than commercially available foodservice containers.

Now, if cellulose and lignin work together like Batman and Robin, have they solved all our problems with sustainability yet? Not so fast. Here’s a case to illustrate why.

An international team of scientists made a plastic-like film from banana stem fibers with lignocellulose that showed flexibility and tensile strength suitable for food packaging. Unfortunately, the researchers also discovered a downside.

In nature, lignocellulose gives wood its color. So, this lignocellulose film lacks the transparency of conventional plastic wrap. Most folks may think twice before buying a raw steak in a package they couldn’t see through.

Opacity shouldn’t be a deal killer in saving the planet. After all, most packaging materials we use every day aren’t transparent. Besides, if specialty cellulose and lignin can be obtained at the very same mills that produce pulp and paper, that will help cut down transportation costs and lower emissions.

A brighter-looking future

There may still be some kinks to work out with regards to lignocellulose, but scientists are getting closer to solving these problems each day. At Industry Intelligence, we help you monitor progress and cutting-edge technologies in sustainability. There’s a whole lot more innovative practices we can show you.

Randy Robinson is the editor of Recycling, Waste Management, and Industrial Technologies for Industry Intelligence, which can help YOU better address your industry challenges. To arm yourself with the latest market intelligence, contact Ask us about our Sustainability Monitor, interactive intelligence map, Microsoft Teams implementation and mobile app.

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