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Serious Cereal Packaging

Hot-shot innovation from a clever little Christchurch company could go a long way to salving consumer guilt pangs about conspicuous packaging consumption.

The company, Blue Marble Polymers, is making a living out of a product that most people don’t even look at before they throw it away. Last year it launched a starch based loosefill product, now they’ve found a way to make a biodegradable starch foam for protective packaging that could be a clean, green world first.

New Zealand lags behind much of the rest of the world in replacing traditional packaging, (the sort you find around electronic goods like your new computer or vcr, for instance) with a more environmentally-sound alternative required by regulation in Europe and by consumer demand in Japan and the USA.

But that could change, thanks to biodegradable starch-based foam packaging just developed by Blue Marble Polymers. John Errington, Managing Director of the fledgling offshoot from Gough Technology, explains: “it’s made of starch so it’s soluble and easily composted. I think it’s a bit ironic that some conventional packaging will last longer in the landfill than the product it protects. ”

Biodegradability is a big issue, according to Mr Errington, who says Blue Marble foam is made by a process similar to that used to make snack foods. While he doesn’t advocate eating your way out of the packaging mountain, he does say that Blue Marble Polymer’s biodegradable foam packaging has several of the same ingredients as snackfood, but the addition of other additives, and different processing methods produces a softer more resilient product.

The breakthrough in understanding how to actually ‘foam’ the starch and expand it into high grade foam was assisted by funding from Technology New Zealand, part of the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology, through its TBG funding scheme. First up was loosefill packaging technology, then the company looked at developing starch-based shell mouldings- a process believed to be unique as well as environmentally sound.

“We received $140,000 in matching finance from Technology New Zealand which allowed our in-house R&D team to draw on academic and industry-based expertise from NZ, Australia and the US in a two part research project. Firstly we identified how to develop loosefill on an economically-viable scale and then we looked at starch chemistry and microwave heating for foam packaging moulding,” he says. The outcome was a unique, patentable technology.

The first run of loose fill packaging has just come off an Auckland-based production line and, although Mr Errington terms it an ‘entry level technology,’ it is the advance guard for more sophisticated products to come. It is also believed to be the first time the product has been manufactured in New Zealand; a deliberate strategy by the company to develop solutions that are economic for even the smallest regions.

“Loosefill was just the start,” says Mr Errington. “We now know a lot more about starch’s characteristics and we expect to be able to use that technology to great advantage in foam moulding packaging. It has also given us an entry into strong international networks and partnerships which will be of particular significance in commercialising the starch-based moulding.”

He believes this environmentally desirable biodegradable natural packaging could hit the big time internationally and, although it is too early to quantify Mr Errington says export sales
from the foam shells, believed to be unique, should be in the multimillion dollar range.

Blue Marble Polymers is a new intrepreneurial offshoot from Gough Technology, set up to introduce new technology and IP into the electronics company.

The company that takes its name from a chance comment by an Apollo astronaut (‘the earth is like a blue marble’) is set to make sure it also stays green.

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