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Breaking down barriers with BASF

From the September 2015 issue.

German chemicals giant BASF is trying to solve the great waste quandary facing the single serve segment with its development of certified and fully compostable coffee capsules.

The single serve revolution that has swept the coffee industry over the past decade has created massive opportunity for countless companies old and new, but it has also presented all involved with one great problem – how to deal responsibly with all that waste?

This quandary, and the industry’s inability to come up with a definitive answer to it, has attracted a great deal of criticism at a time when the industry is more focused than ever on proving its credentials as socially and environmentally responsible.

The opposing pulls of these two almost irresistible forces – sustainability on the one hand and the single serve revolution on the other – might cause some to be overtaken by inertia.

But in this dynamic and wide-reaching industry, there will always be somebody willing to take the seemingly unsolvable and find a solution to it.

The chemical company BASF would be familar to most people. But it isn’t often a company associated with the coffee industry.

That is a fact Martin Bussmann, BASF’s Team Leader of Biodegradable Packaging, is happy to concede.

“We at BASF biopolymers at a first glance have nothing to do with coffee,” Bussmann tells GCR Magazine. “But we produce specialty plastics.”

One of them are BASF’s biopolymers that are certified and fully compostable, that Bussmann hopes will make his company a major partner to the coffee industry in the near future.

BASF produces a polymer known as ecovio, a fully compostable material that can be used in coffee capsules.

Ecovio has been on the market for a few years, but BASF has had to overcome a few key challenges to make it suitable for the capsule market.

“We started with coffee capsules about four years ago, but at that time the biggest hurdle was that our polymers didn’t provide a very high heat resistance,” Bussmann says.

This meant that the capsules themselves would warp in the machine, but BASF was encouraged by the fact that the capsules themselves were actually working.

“For sure we had some slight deformation [of the capsule], but the extraction and the ejection of the coffee capsule worked quite well,” Bussmann says.

Since then, BASF continued to work on perfecting the material, making sure that it was suitable for use with the different machines at all stages of the manufacturing and consumption process.

“One of the requirements in developing these materials is that they need to work on all of the existing machinery along the production chain to be viable,” Bussmann says.

In 2013, BASF teamed up with the Swiss Coffee Company to launch the Beanarella capsule range using the certified and fully compostable ecovio(R) to form the coffee capsules, the first commercial release of the product.

“We now have a new ecovio that you can use for thin-wall single serve coffee capsules both for thermoforming and injection moulding,” Bussmann says.

Bussmann says the development is an elegant solution to the problem of what to do with the waste produced by single serve coffee machines, as it plays to one of coffee’s inherent strengths.

“Everybody knows that the used coffee grounds make great compost – after all that’s what our grandmas did,” Bussmann says. “Coffee is an excellent addition to compost. As a nitrogen source of the compost it lets the organisms grow quite fast to eat up all the other stuff, and it has also got great qualities as a fertiliser.

“At the end of the day 85 per cent of the capsule is coffee and just 15 per cent is packaging, but that 15 per cent of packaging is preventing you from composting the organic waste.”

With more and more energy being focused on generating less organic waste, and also finding recycling solutions for the generated waste, the possible applications for compostable food packaging are growing.

Coffee capsules are not the only application for this material. In fact, Bussmann tells GCR, ecovio is also used in agriculture applications, called mulch films.

“Those markets are mainly vegetables, where they use these long films made of ecovio(R) which they roll out over the fields to stop weeds growing and speed up the growth of the vegetables themselves,” he says. “Typical target crops for that are for tomatoes and pumpkins and the advantage is that after harvesting the biodegradable mulch film is left on soil and biodegrades.”

It is also likely that compostable disposable shopping bag you get in the supermarkets can be made of BASF’s ecovio, as this is another of the key markets for bioploymers.

Currently the capsules being made using BASF’s compostable materials are being produced as a combination of ecovio and another polymer which provides barrier properties to seal in the coffee’s freshness.

However, Bussmann says, a material that combines all of these qualities in one is not far away.

“Our short term goal is to integrate those barrier properties and to keep the coffee capsules compostability,” he says.

“The future, which is very close, will be to integrate those barrier properties to keep their compostability,” he says.

At present, BASF is in the process of having the new material certified as compostable before it is launched.

“A certification is important to build consumer trust into biopolymer solutions,” Bussmann says, adding that he expects the material will be ready for the market by the end of 2015.

Beyond capsules, BASF is now also focused on that possible applications of their biodegradable polymers in materials right along the coffee consumption chain.

“We are working on what we call the ‘coffee world’ – we are also providing ecovio solutions for coating cardboard cups and we are also doing thermoforming for takeaway lids,” Bussmann says. “So everything that comes next in food packaging we are aiming to develop and provide compostable solutions.” GCR

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