Safely Packaged: Recyclable Reusable Transport Box Protects the Environment and Sensitive Goods
Interview with Prof. Rudolf Pfaendner, Head of the Plastics Research Department at the Fraunhofer Institute for Structural Durability and System Reliability LBF
Packaging materials are often not very sustainable. This is partly because they are only designed for single-use transport. Researchers in the Fraunhofer LBF’s Plastics department have taken this fact as an opportunity to develop an alternative. With their recyclable reusable transport solution for sensitive goods, the climate, the environment and resources can be protected.
Prof. Pfaendner, congratulations: together with the Darmstadt-based start-up Berges GbR, you and your colleagues have developed a fully recyclable reusable transport box. How did that come about?
Prof. Rudolf Pfaendner: Sustainability is one of our core topics at the Institute, namely sustainability in the entire development – from the design of the material to the design of the application to high-quality material recycling. The latter means developing a product whose first application is followed by a second, third and so on. The latter means developing a product whose first application is followed by a second, third, etc. application and which can be completely recycled at the end of its life cycle. The fact that it has become a transport box came about through an internal discussion about ordering goods on the internet. People who order on the internet still usually produce a lot of waste – for the yellow bin through cushioning material such as polystyrene flakes and bubble wrap, for the waste paper bin through the cardboard box and corrugated cardboard. This has to be better in view of the CO2 footprint, the need to save energy and the scarcity of raw materials, we thought to ourselves and started to develop a sustainable transport box with equally sustainable padding material.
How did you get there?
Pfaendner: For one thing, we were able to draw on our extensive experience with the entire range of plastics that exist today. On the other hand, there are properties that our product multiple transport box must necessarily achieve or have: mechanical properties, high durability and more. For example, we tested the durability of the outer shell of the box in the laboratory by accelerated ageing, the weather resistance by UV light tests. The air cushion, in turn, had to have a certain stability and also withstand stretching over several hundred percent. Many laboratory tests were necessary until we found the material of choice.
The development has been successful. What makes it stand out?
Pfaendner: Certainly above all that the transport box and the cushioning material inside are made of the same material. This is an ideal mono-material for recycling and the box can be recycled in one step. The material is HDPE – High Density Polyethylene, the commercially available standard material. However, the box and cushioning material could also be produced from PLA – the renewable raw material polylactic acid. But the industry is still closer to PE.
What was the biggest challenge?
Pfaendner: The challenge was certainly to develop cushioning material in a sustainable form. We succeeded with the airbag. It is a re-inflatable air cushion that can be inflated to different degrees via a valve, for example with a compressed air gun, and then wraps itself protectively around the packaged goods. In this way, a wide variety of objects can be safely packed – from sensitive machine parts to works of art. Up to now, the latter have often been transported in boxes produced especially for one-time transport, which are also foamed. Not very environmentally friendly.
What is the next step in your development?
Pfaendner: The box already has utility model protection and a patent application. We have shown its technical possibilities and proved that it works. Now we are looking for a partner who will produce it in larger numbers and test it in practice. Logistics and shipping companies that pack things in different quantities and dimensions would be suitable. But what would probably be closest is someone who has to continuously move machine parts between company location A and company location B, for example.
And when the “end of life” of the transport boxes is approaching and they are no longer functional, do they then go into the yellow bin?
Pfaendner: Oh no, they are far too good for that! Ideally, their owners collect them until a few have been gathered, have them shredded as recyclate stream and make new boxes out of them. Properties such as durability may then have to be improved with additives. We know these and they can easily be added.
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