The biospife story
The biospife – a spoon-knife utensil for eating kiwifruit – is made from an innovative bioplastic material developed through a partnership between ZESPRI and Scion. The biospife demonstrates that kiwifruit residues can be incorporated into a compostable bioplastic material for use on standard plastics processing equipment.
Sustainability: Capable of being maintained at a steady level without exhausting natural resources or causing severe ecological damage.
Prototype: A trial working model or preliminary version of something. Sometimes a prototype might be smaller than the final version of an engineered object so that the engineers can check if the design works before committing themselves to large-scale commercial production.
Optimise: Improve a product or process to achieve the best possible functioning outcome in terms of efficiency, performance properties, cost and so on.
Iteration: Repetition of certain steps in a process until the desired result is achieved.
Every year, millions of kiwifruit are eaten with a neat little plastic tool, the ZESPRI spife, which is then thrown away. Aware that consumers are demanding more sustainable practices, ZESPRI partnered with Scion to find a solution. This is the story of the biospife, the world’s first compostable spife. The biospife is made from an innovative bioplastic containing residues from ZESPRI’s kiwifruit waste stream.
Sustainability is a key driver for ZESPRI, and they wanted to find a way to use kiwifruit waste and reduce their carbon footprint.
Global customers, retail chains and so on, are being challenged by investors to provide confidence that the products that they source are going to have a secure supply, and so there’s a challenge coming back to suppliers to be able to provide products which would reduce the amount of wastage.
The spoon-knife or the spife that is used to eat kiwifruit was an innovation very early on in the development of the ZESPRI brand, and it helped promote and establish this new brand, and it’s improved the convenience of eating kiwifruit, but when we started doing our environmental footprinting, we found that around 3% of our existing carbon footprint of growing a product in New Zealand, shipping it and having it consumed in Europe was due to the fossil fuels in the plastics which are used to make that original spife.
These needs drove ZESPRI’s interest in partnering with Scion to develop a solution.
We work with research providers, and we identify where there is commonality between some of the longer-term government-funded initiatives and some of our strategic initiatives. The development of biomaterials was one area that we identified Scion had a longer-term government-funded project in that space, and that fitted well with our own sustainability initiative.
Investigating how residual horticultural waste might be incorporated into bioplastics is an area that Scion has been interested in for over 10 years. Martin Markotsis is passionate about environmentally friendly plastics, having had experience working with plastics in research teams around the world.
Dr Martin Markotsis
ZESPRI approached us. They’d done a life cycle analysis and carbon footprinting on their own systems, and they’d identified that the polystyrene spife represented 3% of their carbon footprint. We’d done surveys of what residual materials from horticultural or agriculture were available in New Zealand. One we’d identified was reject kiwifruit from the packhouse, so the spife became the perfect prototype to replace a petrochemical plastic with a plant-based material that ideally, at the end of life, will compost.
The biospife is a unique material in terms of the fact that we’ve been able to incorporate kiwifruit residues, which are generally a wet biomass, which is difficult to process in plastics processing industry. We’ve developed technology to deal with the high moisture content and incorporate kiwifruit residues in a bioplastic solution. And now you’ve got a utensil that, once you’ve cut and enjoyed your ZESPRI kiwifruit, you can then compost the skins away with the tool.
Together, ZESPRI and Scion identified the opportunity of lowering the carbon footprint in the spife by converting it to a bioplastic material. ZESPRI’s vision is a spife to eat your fruit with and then throw into an industrial composting bin along with the skins.
So how did they come up the idea?
It’s one of these situations where you don’t generate an idea in isolation. What you bring together is a range of different ideas from quite different areas, and it’s actually the combination of those ideas which generate such a product as a biospife.
Developing the biospife has taken over 5 years, during which consumer testing has played an important part, including testing in export markets like Europe and Asia.
When we look at prototyping and demonstration and monitoring the responses in the marketplace, that involves working at a number of different levels – working with groups or trade shows in New Zealand, school groups, early on, just getting some feedback from local people about the product. As you start refining the materials and the prototypes, then you become more confident to be able to take those into a marketplace and take them into international trade shows. So we were able to take quite a well developed prototype to Europe and Asia, and that also gave us some interesting insights.
Many prototypes have been tested and challenges overcome. Collaboration has played a big part – being able to access people or knowledge as and when required is part of the success of the biospife’s development.
Dr Martin Markotsis
The biospife has gone through several stages and iterations as we’ve encountered a challenge like the material becoming quite sticky or having moulding issues. We’ve come back and discussed as a team possible alternatives, gone back to plan out proposed solutions, then actually tried them, made up the materials, moulded them, seeing if we’ve got it.
One of the challenges we had was that we produced a bulk amount of material, which is a challenge in itself, but those resulting spifes were quite brittle so they broke easily. We looked at different ways to make the material slightly tougher. We moulded about eight different materials and e made test pieces of the different materials and then tested them to measure which ones would snap more easily, and so we were able to change the make-up of the material to make it less brittle and more suitable for their application.
Throughout the process, we’ve tested the mechanical properties of the biospife – how it performs when you pull it, bend it. We’ve measured the thermal properties and what happens with impact. That has helped us optimise the formulations. We’ve looked at the mechanical properties of the existing polystyrene used to make the spife and tried to match them as closely as possible. We have also started to look at the biodegradation of the material, how it behaves in an industrial compost situation, but at this stage, that testing is still under way.
The biospife is close to commercial production now. Scion just need to optimise the current mixture for their commercial plastics processing partner, Alto, to be able to produce hundreds of thousands of biospifes each year. So what’s contributed to the success of this project?
Dr Martin Markotsis
The key factors to success have been ZESPRI’s drive to be sustainable, to use a residue from their process into a new material for them to market their products with the availability of the processing equipment and testing equipment we have here at Scion, as well as commercial companies that are willing to take on the challenges of replacing a petrochemical plastic with a bioplastic.
When we look at the key factors that will make this product a success, one of the most important factors is that it actually delivers a genuine benefit to consumers. Consumers are looking at convenient ways of lowering their impact on the planet. We have to deliver them a solution which minimises the amount of time they have to expend on dealing with waste, so disposal of the spoon-knife, on top of all the existing attributes the consumer is looking for out of the spife.
The team at Scion has developed extensive knowledge of biomaterials through the biospife project. They can now apply this knowledge to other needs and opportunities to create more innovative bioplastic products in the future.
Dr Martin Markotsis
In the short term, we’re going to look at optimising the current mixture for Alto to be able to produce tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, hopefully millions of biospifes each year. In the longer term, we’ve also looked at incorporating the kiwifruit-based bioplastic into other plastic areas that are used by ZESPRI, including packaging trays to hold the individual fruit in the box. In the long term, we’re also looking at incorporation of other biomasses, going back to Scion’s earlier work and what other horticultural or agricultural residues can we incorporate into a bioplastic system for use in other areas, other businesses.
Due to the innovative work done by ZESPRI and Scion, you could soon be doing your bit for the environment by eating your kiwifruit with a biospife!
Dr Martin Markotsis, Scion
Alistair Mowat, ZESPRI
Plant & Food Research Ltd
ZESPRI Group Ltd