In a stroke of scientific genius, a German researcher enjoying a box of popcorn in a dark movie theater realized that the overpriced, butter-soaked concession had the exact same size and consistency as Styrofoam packing peanuts.
Considering the polystyrene-based latter takes centuries to break down into yet smaller bits of harmful microplastic, and requires fossil fuel extraction to manufacture, Alireza Kharazipour thought it was worth experimenting with puffed corn kernels as a replacement for them.
Polystyrene is one of the most enduring synthetic materials humans have developed. It has enabled packaging to take on very precise forms and provides excellent packing safety for fragile electronics on the move while costing pennies to manufacture. However, along with being among the least biodegradable plastics, many recycling facilities don’t even have the capabilities for processing it.
Taking corn waste products produced from making corn flakes, then filling them with steam creates what Kharazipour and his team at Gottingen University call “granulated popcorn.”
“The products are very light because popcorn granules are filled with air like honeycombs,” Kharazipour tells Fast Company. “When grain maize expands into popcorn, the volume increases by 15% to 20%.”
The popcorn packing can be made from any type of corn, and is completely biodegradable. Large pieces can be compressed into shapes to hold different products, and can be easily sawed into pieces, either for cutting into precise shapes, or for shredding at the end of its life.
Around 3 million tons of polystyrene, (which is a lot considering it’s 95% air) are produced in the U.S. every year, mostly for things like takeaway drink and meal containers. The brilliance of Kharazipour’s idea has landed him an exclusive licensing agreement with a medium-sized grain and cereal company in Europe called Nordgetreide for manufacturing various popcorn packing products.
Stefan Schult, Managing Director of Nordgetreide, states: “Each and every day we pollute our Earth with an ever increasing amount of plastic waste that will be a burden on our eco-system for thousands of years. Our popcorn packaging is a great sustainable alternative to polystyrene which is derived from petroleum.” That’s hopeful news indeed.
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