Antimicrobial Plastics: Making Packaging Fit for a Sustainable Future

Antimicrobial Plastics: Making Packaging Fit for a Sustainable Future

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The convenience of plastic comes at a significant environmental cost, with enormous amounts of the material entering landfill each year. This is partly due to early product disposal as a result of degradation caused by microbial growth on plastic surfaces, leaving unpleasant odours and unattractive staining. Consumers want smarter plastics that are functional, visually appealing and sustainable, and antimicrobial food packaging is a robust solution for competitive manufacturers to add to their offerings. Kimberley Cherrington, Senior Manager, Global Brand and Marketing Communications at Microban International, discusses how antimicrobial technology can prolong the usable lifetime of plastic goods, reducing the rate at which they enter landfill.

Plastic: protagonist or provocateur?

Plastic has been the hero of many industries, and has become an essential part of the modern world, making previously out-of-reach products accessible to all thanks to its affordability and versatility. However, growing public concerns about the environmental impact of single-use disposable plastics – as a result of their resistance to natural degradation and contribution to toxic pollution – have earned them a deservedly bad reputation. A 2022 report of retail behaviour revealed that over twothirds of consumers are willing to pay for more sustainable products, with 76 percent reporting an expectation for retailers and brands to increasingly offer such options. 1 Various advisory guidelines that promote higher recycling rates have been introduced at national levels following calls for greater environmental responsibility in the plastic industry but, without internally agreed recycling standards, these efforts can only have limited success.

The trouble with keeping plastic clean

Plastic is routinely used in the storage of organic material – whether shampoo or foodstuffs – and the polymeric surfaces of these containers easily succumb to microbial growth, introducing cleanliness issues. For example, if food containers have not been properly washed, residual organic debris may provide a rich source of nutrients for microbes. In addition, some plastics are supplemented with plasticisers to increase the flexibility of the end product, and these additives can also act as carbon-rich nutrition for bacteria and fungi. This issue has been exacerbated by the introduction of alternative plant-derived plasticiser, which are now being adopted for some applications to satisfy sustainability agendas, but are even more susceptible to microbial attack than their synthetic counterparts.

Regular cleaning and spraying with disinfectants can keep microbial growth at bay temporarily, but  recontamination is unavoidable. Furthermore, plastic products can be notoriously hard to clean, owing to the material’s ability to be bent and moulded into complex shapes with hard-to-reach corners. No matter how thorough and frequent a cleaning regimen, or even how effective a disinfectant spray may be, it is virtually impossible to relentlessly maintain an adequate level of cleanliness for every plastic product and surface.

Addressing the problem at the source

A smarter approach to tackling the issue of plastic sustainability involves creating goods that remain cleaner for longer by design, making them more appealing to reuse and extending their usable lifetimes. If users are offered plastics that are inherently protected from the accumulation of microorganisms, and they can be confident will remain fresher between cleaning, it could promote a shift towards the habitual reuse of packaging. This means delivering products that are resistant to microbial growth, avoiding staining, development of unpleasant odours, and structural degradation.

Built-in antimicrobial technologies and odour-control solutions can be incorporated directly into plastic products at the point of manufacture, disrupting the regular function and growth of microorganisms – including bacteria, moulds and mildews – to achieve continuous product protection that does not wash off or wear away. These antimicrobials act as the perfect complement to regular cleaning routines, providing consumers with peace of mind over the cleanliness of their belongings and homes. Consumers can be reassured that products remain fresher for longer, and the prevention of odours and staining helps to avoid the premature and unnecessary disposal of plastic products.

A noble pursuit of protection against microbes

Microban International is a global leader in antimicrobial and odour-control solutions, and has recently launched a variety of innovative technologies that perfectly demonstrate its commitment to sustainable product development. For example, MicroGuard – a series of antifungal additives for PVC, PU and EVA applications, including foam – offers a more favourable toxicity profile compared to other alternatives, such as the arsenic-based agent 10,100oxybisphenoxyarsine (OBPA), which has attracted safety concerns. LapisShield by Microban represents another antimicrobial innovation that has been developed with the environment in mind. This novel technology for waterbased coatings on plastic products is completely free from heavy metals, and has an improved regulatory status over traditional chemistries.

A trusted partner in antimicrobial solutions

Microban is spearheading this new direction for the industry by looking to nature to inspire its future formulations. Using its market-leading expertise, the company is pioneering research into the use of organic-derived biocidal technologies that mimic naturally occurring structures without negatively impacting the product’s recyclability. These developments, together with Microban’s existing comprehensive portfolio of over 25 approved antimicrobial chemistries –ensure that the company is at the forefront of the drive to make plastics more sustainable.


The use of single-use plastic products is currently under serious scrutiny – by the plastics industry, governments and consumers alike – as part of efforts to halt the increasing volumes of these materials entering landfill. There is a growing pressure to prevent plastic pollution, both in water and on land, to protect humans and animals, which means that future products need to be engineered with sustainability in mind. Antimicrobial technologies can be integrated into plastics to provide 24/7 product protection against microbial attack that would otherwise result in odours, staining and material degradation, all of which might prompt a consumer to dispose of a product sooner. From food packaging to water-based coatings, the opportunities for antimicrobial technologies are widespread, and the formulations come in a variety of forms, making working with an expert partner essential for success. There is a clear and tangible benefit to antimicrobials for plastic sustainability, and this bolsters a movement towards a truly circular economy, where reusable plastic products are not only a reality, but are the consumer packaging of choice.


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