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The ‘Popcorn Professor’ sees a new future for packaging

A group of scientists at Göttingen University in Germany has come up with a way to create sustainable packaging from nothing other than popcorn and cornflakes. They hope this innovation will help replace plastic packaging, notably polystyrene.

The packaging industry counts as the biggest consumer of plastics, accounting for almost 40% of demand. Every year, the world produces around 15.6 million tonnes of polystyrene packaging. Rising levels of consumerism paired with a boost in online shopping provides a strong foundation for this packaging segment, now worth about US$ 9.5 billion (EUR 8 billion) a year. As yet, there aren’t many recyclers dedicated to end-of-life Styrofoam though.

The new process yields three-dimensional moulded forms that can be produced from ‘granulated’ popcorn, explains professor Alireza Kharazipour. He come up with the idea after seeing a movie at the local cinema, where he realised Styrofoam and popcorn have almost the same structure. ‘The main advantage of this recycled material is that it comes from renewable biological sources, is environmentally friendly and sustainable. It is therefore an excellent alternative to polystyrene in packaging applications,’ says Kharazipour – now fondly called ‘the Popcorn Professor’.

For the pilot, recycled packaging was made from the by-products of a nearby cornflake factory operated by Nordgetreide. By collaborating with a producer, Kharazipour has secured a steady waste stream to help him turn his idea into commercial reality. This tasty innovation comes at a time the public and recycling industry are jointly calling for greater producer responsibility. Turning food waste into a new revenue stream will hopefully give big brands the extra push needed to pursue sustainability.

In the ‘Bat Cave’

It’s always fun to run the numbers, so let’s take a deep dive! There are more than 203 600 ‘silver screens’ in the world. China (54 165), the US (54 165) and India (11 000) make up the top 3 of nations with the most cinemas. My country, the Netherlands, ‘only’ has 888. Popcorn is the top-seller at most establishments – caramel sea salt is my personal favourite. Global sales for this sweet and savoury treat reached 4300 million in 2020 and are projected to exceed 6.5 million in 2027.

The first commercial popcorn machine was invented in 1885, with microwave popcorn introduced to the market in 1981. But did you know that the ‘oldest’ popcorn was discovered by anthropologist Herbert Dick and botanist Earle Smith in New Mexico in 1948? The young Harvard students were exploring a cavern known as the ‘Bat Cave’ in the area’s famous national park, where they found individually popped corn kernels carbon-dated at approximately 5 600 years old.

It’s hard finding any practical data on popcorn waste – though, technically, it has a shelf life of about one month, after which it loses its moisture. I can’t imagine cinemas and supermarkets sell all the popcorn they store so the figure must be meaningful on a global scale.

Meanwhile, Kellogg’s net sales for its cornflakes brands averaged EUR 13.7 billion in 2020. The breakfast food is currently sold in over 180 countries worldwide. The multinational partnered up with independent brewer Seven Brothers in 2018 to transform its production waste (estimated at roughly 295 00 tonnes per year) into beer. Kellogg’s says it is committed to reducing total waste in its facilities by 15% per metric tonne of food produced.

Illusion of snow

For years, food waste has been a sensitive point of discussion. It’s fair to state that the ones speaking out against it the loudest are the ones causing the problem. This doesn’t just include food, candy and drinks companies; the issue also spills into industries like movie making (the food on set is not actually being eaten and most of it is thrown out), the hospitality business (I’ve enjoyed many buffets at conferences – and we really don’t need twelve types of cake), as well as the fashion industry.

A ludicrous example (see photos below) involves couture brand Calvin Klein, which used no less than 6.2 tonnes of popcorn to ‘decorate’ the floor of the New York Stock Exchange to showcase its 2018 winter collection (the popcorn symbolised snow). This level of excess sparked controversy, with people arguing that commercial interests and society’s obsession with luxury are blinding entrepreneurs and consumers for real world problems.

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