Solving the global plastic waste challenge
Federal, provincial governments support commercialization of sustainable packaging solution
By Lilian Schaer
A sustainable food packaging start-up in Waterloo Region is scaling up production as it prepares its technology for commercialization.
Thanks to funding provided through the Ontario Agri-Food Research Initiative (OAFRI) administered by Bioenterprise, Canada’s Food & Agri-Tech Engine, Nfinite Nanotechnology was able to complete research that proves its proprietary coatings can improve the performance of sustainable packaging materials. Since then, the company has been able to secure partners and investment to help commercialize its innovation.
“We want to help solve the global plastic waste challenge by reducing what ends up in landfill and replacing single use plastics with more sustainable alternatives, including for the food packaging sector,” says Dr. Kevin Musselman, Associate Professor at the University of Waterloo (Functional Nanomaterials Group) and Chief Scientific Officer and Co-founder of Nfinite Nanotechnology.
There are many sustainable plastic and paper packing alternatives available, he notes, but they don’t provide good barrier properties to keep water and oxygen out of the package, which is critical for food packaging. Potato chip bags, for example, have a thin layer of metal between plastic layers to provide that needed barrier, but this also makes those bags unrecyclable.
“What we’re doing is replacing that metal layer with a coating that provides good barrier properties, but is also recyclable,” Musselman says. “My research is in nanomaterials, which is the basis for the coating technique we use. The layers are metal oxides and extremely thin and because they’re not metal, they’re easier to recycle and are also compostable.”
The technology was invented by Musselman and his two masters’ students at the time, Chee Teoh and Jhi Loke, who now hold the CEO and Chief Technology Officer positions respectively at Nfinite Nanotechnology. Their initial target market was solar cells and electronics, but they soon discovered the huge need in the sustainable food packaging industry for barrier coatings and how their technology could offer solutions.
With the OAFRI funding, the team was able to adjust the composition of their coatings to improve their barrier properties and test how good their coatings are at blocking oxygen and water. As well, they also did studies to understand the coatings’ flex resistance and robustness.
“We were able to prove all these coating properties and although we are still a few steps away from being on the shelf, we are now working closely with two consumer packaged goods companies and a packaging maker to develop solutions they can take to market,” Musselman says.
“The key thing that OAFRI did for us was give us the personnel to work full time on improving the performance of the coatings. This was a critical path on our road map and the funding came at a perfect time to support that,” he adds.
Next steps include scaling up to produce larger samples to continue testing with partners. The OAFRI funding also came with a free membership to Canada’s Food & Agri-Tech Engine, which Musselman is looking forward to trying out.
The Ontario Agri-Food Research Initiative was funded through the Canadian Agricultural Partnership (the Partnership), a five-year, $3 billion investment by federal, provincial and territorial governments from 2018-2023, to strengthen the agriculture, agri‐food and agri‐based products sector, ensuring continued innovation, growth and prosperity. The views expressed are the views of the recipient and do not necessarily reflect those of the governments of Canada or Ontario.
Louis Delumeau, MASc., Material Scientist at Nfinite Nanotechnology and the one on the right is Kevin Musselman, Prof., Chief Scientific Officer & Co-founder of Nfinite Nanotechnology, Associate Professor at University of Waterloo.