Featured image for Emma Sicher Uses Fruit & Vegetable Peels To Make Packaging

Emma Sicher Uses Fruit & Vegetable Peels To Make Packaging

by Casha Doemland on 11/21/2018 | 4 Minute Read

We’re having a hard time finding a home for a lot of our trash.

Between 56.4 million tons of paper and 8.4 million tons of plastic waste, the European Union found itself in a tight spot after 2016 as the exportation of those materials to China drastically decreased with new laws that placed strict restrictions on 24 types of waste. In response, the EU has made a series of changes including a union-wide ban on single-use plastics by 2021.

But it’s not just countries and brands that are seeking out solutions. In recent years, designers are stepping into the realm of biodegradable and fully compostable materials for packaging.

For Emma Sicher, a 23-year old graduate of The University of Bozen-Bolzano in Northern Italy, the amount of waste we’re putting out into the world is unacceptable. Instead of sitting idly by and allowing the situation to worsen, she opted to dedicate her thesis project to finding a sustainable alternative to the plastic and paper packaging most commonly associated with food.

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Over the course of six months from October 2016 to March 2017, From Peel to Peel went from a great, green idea to the development of two types of biodegradable products, single-use tableware and packaging. She also found that she was a Free University of Bozen-Bolzano grant winner, an award that would allow her research at the university to continue.

"My biggest goal was to find or create a material which would follow the logic of natural food protection," says Sicher. "After a broad material research, I found the SCOBY, also known as microbial cellulose or bacterial cellulose, and went through the most relevant projects developed with it to understand the potential.”  By studying mycelium, a fungus-based material, bioplastics and yeasts, she stumbled upon fruit and vegetable scraps that are high in sugars and low in pH like apples, potatoes and beetroots that could be used to nourish the SCOBY.

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Editorial photograph

"Depending on the food, either apple leftovers or potato/grape pomace, the cellulose will have a different smoothness, time of growth and color because as 'we are what we eat,' the same happens with bacteria," says Sicher. "Depending on what they eat, their production of cellulose will be influenced."

In trying to find ways to eliminate plastic waste, Sicher also discovered a bonus perk. There’s 88 millions tons of food waste in the EU every year, and by partnering up with her local South Tyrol organic waste management plant Eco-Center and using fruit and vegetable scraps, she was contributing to a circular economy.

"Theoretically, the microbial cellulose production plant would receive the fruits and vegetable scraps from local producers or industries and use them to feed the SCOBY to produce cellulose sheets," says Sicher. "Then, the production plant would dry the layers and either manufacture and sell finished products, semi-finished products or the sheets of the materials themselves. So, in the end, microbial cellulose crafted products would be used in the same area providing a local answer to the use of plastic and paper. Could you imagine eating dried apples out of packaging made from apple peel-fed cellulose?"

Sicher then took it upon herself to formulate the material on her own using beetroot, potatoes, apples, beer hops and grape pomace. From there, she attended a variety of university workshops to test different manufacturing processes and concluded the material could hold different textures. While she found it was easy to dye, it was not intended for water or oil-based objects without a coating.

Editorial photograph
Editorial photograph

“I grew the SCOBY in plastic tanks covered by breathable fabric," states Sicher. "Since I was developing the project in winter, I had a lot of temperature jumps and this created uneven surfaces because the microorganisms need a stable warm temperature. I attempted to solve these issues with aquarium heaters and blankets. Without the right equipment, the material needs up to 2-3 weeks to grow in winter and 1-2 weeks in the summer."

If preserved properly, the materials have a two-year shelf life and can be recycled or reused with a special blending technique. The finished material now has two uses, one for single-use tableware like plates, trays and cups, and the other for packaging like bags, plastic candy wrappers, legumes, pasta, flours and more dried goods. As of now, it's not suitable for liquids, but it's something she wants to develop in the future.

Sicher is serving as a research assistant on The InnoCell Project, an extension of From Peel to Peel, led by the faculty of the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano as well as partners around the globe. Together, they strive to develop the manufacturing process and create a design that starts with local communities and then expands globally over time.

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