The market of coffee capsules is quickly increasing in size and is highly dynamic, with a large number of different technological solutions available. As well known, after being used, coffee capsules cannot be recycled, as they need to be cleaned before starting any recovery step.
At the same time, they could not be dismissed in the compost, as the plastics, which are commonly used, do not degrade in a short time range. In this respect, special interest has recently arisen with regards to the introduction of compostable materials for the manufacturing of compostable coffee capsules.
At this regard, it is worth to note that the coffee capsules, being used in standard coffee brewing equipments, should ensure specific thermal and mechanical performances as:
- Thermal stability of over 100°C, with no heat distortion;
- Sufficient mechanical properties at ambient temperature as they must undergo the coffee filling and sealing process after being melt processed and a potentially long shelf life.
As known, neat PLA resin features appreciable elastic modulus and tensile strength, not far from petroleum-based polymers. Nonetheless, PLA resin is usually pretty brittle, featuring limited thermal resistance, toughness and resiliency.
Typical approaches to overcome these drawbacks involve the modification of PLA through blending with other polymers or including rigid nano-filler. However this latter route is still a source of open debate in the scientific community, especially when the final materials are involved in direct food contact.
In this frame, with the contribution of the LIFE Programme of the European Union, the Project LIFE4COFFE is aimed to validate the use of a new PLA based formulation on a preindustrial scale by refining the material already tested in laboratory and adapting existing plants employed for the production of coffee capsules.
LIFE-PLA4COFFEE project n. ENV/IT/000744 will validate the use on industrial level of new polymer formulations with improved functional properties and based on commercial poly(lactic acid) (PLA) grades primarily for the production of compostable coffee capsules but also for the production of other consumer goods.
At this regard, the project involves three stages:
Phase 1 – Scale-up of the new PLA material and the coffee production process by the refinement of the selected PLA formulation and a specific development of the pre-industrial compounding plant. Iterative tests and optimization will allow to fine-tune the process.
Phase 2 – Demonstration of the new material and the adapted process by testing prototypes to demonstrate how the new PLA based material contributes to the production of environmental-friendly items while respecting required specifications. At this regard, life cycle and socioeconomic impact assessment will support the results.
Phase 3 – Dissemination of project results trough the website, participation in relevant events such as fairs, workshops, international conferences as well as publications on international refereed journals and specific trade magazines.
MAIN AIMS OF THE PROJECT
The project, with the contribution of the LIFE Programme of the European Union, will be mainly aimed to:
- Convincing coffee capsules producers that the use of new bio-based materials can meet the specifications required by the reference market;
Demonstrating how an industrial innovation can ensure new productions with reduced environmental impact while safeguarding economic growth.
The technical results, expected within the two years of the project, can be summarized as follow:
- A fine-tuned PLA formulation able to meet processing conditions and performance criteria;
- Prototypes of new coffee capsules with 100% fossil feedstock reduction and the same, if not improved, performances;
- A specifically designed pre-industrial compounding plant;
- Moulding and compression technologies adequately adapted to the new material and demonstrating the feasibility of the new solution to the whole plastic industry.
From the environmental point of view, given the ever-growing market of non-recyclable plastics, it is expected that the scale-up on industrial scale of the new eco-friendly material will allow a significant save of raw petrochemical sources, pollutants and plastic wastes.