Identifying potential risks and environmental impacts of nanomaterials in plastics

Millions of coffee capsules are in use daily, which consist either of aluminium or polymer composites. The project aimed to assess the applicability of the Safe-by-Design Concept based on the product development of nanomaterials in coffee capsules.

In terms of a life cycle assessment, the potential environmental impacts of coffee capsules primarily depend on the type of materials and their subsequent recycling or disposal routes. As long as empty aluminium coffee capsules are not separately collected and recycled, plastic capsules – that are ultimately incinerated – will show an improved life cycle assessment. However, capsules consisting of polymer composites need to be modified because such materials would show a relatively high permeability of gases. Nanotechnology would enable the technical requirements for such food contact materials, when nanoscale additives or fillers are used in plastics.

Within the project "SafeNanoKap" it is therefore assumed that the market potential of coffee capsules, made of polymer composites with nanomaterials, will increase considerably. "SafeNanoKap" was made up of an interdisciplinary project team, in which the Polymerwerkstatt GmbH worked closely with the University of Natural Resources and ITA. In the framework of "SafeNanoKap" the so-called "Safe-by-Design" concept (SbD) was tested in practice. Using the example of this selected business case, potential risks and environmental impacts of nanomaterials in plastics were identified.

The application of the SbD concept should allow that potential, unexpected risks are identified and minimized as soon as possible. Furthermore, a Life Cycle Mapping and material flow analysis were conducted to identify possible routes of exposure and "release hotspots" along the entire product lifecycle. This serves to create a sound basis for the successful application of the SbD concept.

With the help of moderated round table discussions the ITA iteratively specified the experts’ attitudes on the strengths and weaknesses of the SbD concept. While the objective of early integration of safety into the innovation process finds broad support, the applicability of this nano-specific security concept is deemed to be difficult. This is primarily due to the unclear roles and responsibilities of the involved actors, as well as the voluntary basis of the concept. In addition, the implementation for SMEs represents considerable additional expenditures in resources in relation to possible benefits. The analysis of the concept allowed for recommendations regarding further development of the SbD concept. The project results of “SafeNanoKap” thus provide a sound basis for further development.


03/2017 - 02/2018

Project team