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Eco-Friendly Biopolymer Creates Compostable Noodle Cup Packaging


Facing backlash over the use of single-use plastic, brands are now shifting towards recyclable paper packaging, a move challenged by the need to find substitutes for non-recyclable plastic coatings that protect against moisture, especially in food and drink packaging.


A notable breakthrough has been in microwavable noodle cups. Nissin Foods U.S. recently transitioned from the traditional polystyrene cup to a new, double-wall fiber cup developed by Graphic Packaging Intl. for its Cup Noodle ramen soup, marking a significant step forward after nearly fifty years. Inspired by Nissin's innovation, CU, a South Korean convenience store chain under BGF Retail, launched a compostable microwavable paper cup for its New Today’s Chicken Noodle, aiming to combine sustainability with consumer favorites.


Hwang-Bo Min from BGF Daily Food Grocery team highlights the Korean market's keen interest in sustainability, driving local companies to focus on eco-friendly solutions. The move towards eco-friendly noodle cup packaging for a popular product like ramen signifies a broader trend towards environmental responsibility in packaging.


CU tackled the issue of plastic in packaging with a groundbreaking bio-based coating, thanks to CJ Biomaterials, a branch of CJ CheilJedang known for its PHA biopolymers production. They innovated a blend of amorphous PHA and polylactic acid bioplastics, creating a microwavable coating that lessens reliance on fossil fuels and boosts the use of renewable materials, all while maintaining the paper cup's effectiveness and compostability.


Both PHA and PLA originate from crops like corn and sugarcane, which has sparked debate over the use of food resources for packaging materials. However, Shim Yoo Kyung from CJ Biomaterials argues that these crops are beneficial, capturing carbon dioxide and converting it into sugar via photosynthesis, which then becomes the basis for producing biopolymers. This process not only uses renewable resources but also is highly efficient in terms of the land required for the crops, covering a minimal fraction of global agricultural space.


PHA, a cutting-edge biopolymer, is produced through the fermentation of natural sugars by bacteria, which use it as an energy reserve. CJ Biomaterials leverages aerobic fermentation in controlled tanks to transform these sugars into PHA, effectively turning microorganisms into biopolymer factories. This method involves a growth phase to expand the microbial cells, followed by a production phase where these cells accumulate PHA, showcasing an innovative approach to sustainable packaging solutions.


CJ Biomaterials highlights that PHAs can significantly enhance other polymers or biopolymers by adding to the bio-based content, speeding up biodegradation, and boosting the performance of resins and products. Notably, amorphous PHA (aPHA), marketed as PHACT A1000P, is softer and more elastic than the commonly used semi-crystalline PHA, offering unique benefits.


For CU's noodle cup coatings, integrating aPHA with PLA improved the PLA's usability by increasing its flexibility and ensuring stability across various temperatures. Max Senechal from CJ Biomaterials noted that this combination also results in superior oil barrier properties compared to traditional polypropylene coatings, achieving a fully bio-based solution.


However, creating this innovative coating faced significant obstacles. Yoo Kyung shared that harmonizing the blending process for aPHA and PLA was challenging due to their different thermal behaviors. Achieving a uniform blend required careful adjustment of conditions and temperatures, as PLA melts around 200°C, whereas aPHA begins to decompose at 150°C. To overcome this, CJ Biomaterials devised a specific method that involved selecting an appropriate PLA grade, determining the right composition and additives, and fine-tuning the extrusion process to achieve the desired blend seamlessly.


Developing the perfect formula for the extrusion coating process was a pivotal part of CJ Biomaterials' innovation, especially because the flow properties of the material play a crucial role. Achieving a consistent flow and melt strength to evenly coat a large surface area posed a significant challenge. To address this, they standardized these properties in-house, ensuring the mixture could be applied uniformly and replicated effectively for large-scale production.


The revolutionary packaging was launched in CU stores on January 3, 2024, after production concluded in December 2023. Both the cup and lid prominently feature the PHACT branding, alongside details on the biodegradable inner coating, signaling CU's commitment to sustainability. According to BGF's Min, the aim was to communicate to consumers CU's investment in developing eco-friendly products.


Min acknowledges that in Korea, the concept of composting and the necessary infrastructure are not widely established yet. However, by incorporating PHA into the noodle cup's inner coating, CU aims to enhance sustainability through the use of bio-based materials.


Despite the novelty of compostable packaging for many customers, Min observes a positive reception towards these innovative products. Customers are increasingly drawn to the idea that choosing such eco-friendly items contributes to environmental preservation, even in something as everyday as a noodle cup.

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