Can Nanocellulose save the planet?

13 October 2020

By 2050, it is predicted, the world’s oceans will contain more plastic than fish1! Global plastic waste amounts to 275 million tonnes a year, of which 8 million tonnes is dumped in our oceans2,3. The estimated economic damage to land and marine ecosystems is £15 billion each year4. The single biggest contributor to this problem is plastic packaging.

Could Nanocellulose help paper replace 275m tonnes of plastic waste?

The packaging industry has been looking at paper as an alternative packaging material that can reduce plastic waste. However, paper has inherent low strength and moisture resistance properties that make it unsuitable for many packaging uses. Many polymer protective coatings for paper have been developed over the years but these have only added to the growing problem of plastic pollution.

Nanocellulose - a new technology derived from plants may just be the answer to save the oceans and your milkshake.

What is Nanocellulose?

Cellulose is the most abundantly occurring material on the planet and is found in plants, which can be broken down using mechanical or chemical methods to form nanocellulose or nano-structured cellulose – a “gel like” substance. Depending on the method used, they can fall into three main groups: crystalline nanocellulose, nanofibrillated cellulose or bacterial nanocellulose.

Protecting paper

Paper can be coated to enhance and even change its properties. This would enable new and wider applications in the real world. The qualities that are given to the paper through coating materials such as polymers include increasing the weight, smoothness, strength or reducing the absorption of specific liquids and gases. These coated papers can then be used in magazines, high quality art paper as well as in the packaging industry. 

Currently, most paper is coated in inexpensive non-biodegradable polymers due to its high mechanical and moisture resistant properties. However, non-biodegradable coatings only add to the constantly growing issues of global plastic pollution. 

Developing an innovative material is challenging! Research projects may fail or not fully achieve their aims. However, the costs of such projects could still qualify for the R&D tax relief.

Why Nanocellulose is better for our environment 

Nanocellulose can potentially replace non-biodegradable polymers for the coating of paper. The application of nanocellulose technology in paper making and packaging industries is very promising; as it can create and support a sustainable cradle to cradle life cycle. 

Nanocellulose have very reactive hydroxyl (-OH) groups on the surface that can be modified before being coated onto paper to provide or enhance the required characteristics and performances. This means that nanocellulose properties can be modified using (a combination of) materials such as graphene oxide, starch or nano-clay to achieve enhanced tensile strength, moisture resistance or even fire resistance. 

Enhancement of the mechanical properties of paper or the integration of novel materials into paper packaging is just the type of technological advancement that the R&D tax relief is intended to support.

There is ongoing research and development into the practical applications of paper substrates coated with modified nanocellulose film to enhance the tensile and moisture properties of paper. The result will hopefully be a reliable and, more importantly, sustainable packaging material that can replace the 275m tonnes of plastic waste produced each and every year.

What does this mean to the food packaging industry?

Currently, paper packaging has very limited uses as it cannot be used for long-lasting foods, where the use of paper utensils such as straws have very little structural integrity. The implementation of nanocellulose coatings can enhance the effectiveness of preventing spoilage of food, extending food shelf life, providing air and moisture barriers, improving the mechanical properties and ultimately replacing polystyrene-based packaging. 

In the near future, we can expect nanocellulose will be the way forward within the food packaging industry and also for other wider applications of paper and cardboard. The reason why the use of nanocellulose has been limited and is at a smaller scale so far, is due to the difficulty of commercially mass producing nanocellulose. Further research on the mass manufacturing of nanocellulose coatings is still required, however, the potential applications of nanocellulose are limitless and will significantly reduce the environmental damage done to our planet every year. 

Technical/Engineering Specialists 

BDO have a team of 75 individuals comprising engineers, auditors and tax specialists. We were one of the first UK accountancy practices to employ multi-disciplined engineers, which has delivered a number of benefits for our clients including engineer-to-engineer discussions, a better understanding of the R&D tax definitions and an established and HMRC agreed process.

For more information, contact Paul or Sutharshan for a no-obligation discussion.

Paul Wong
Tel: +44 (0)20 7893 2430
Email: [email protected]    

Sutharshan Bhaskar
Technical Consultant
Tel: +44 (0)20 3860 4551
Email: [email protected]

[1] Business 
[2] Ocean