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Researchers say a new biodegradable, plant-based, spray-on coating could offer an environmentally friendly alternative to plastic food wrap and containers.
The coating can protect food against pathogenic and spoilage microorganisms and transport damage.
The scalable process could potentially reduce the adverse environmental impact of plastic food packaging as well as protect human health.
“In the last 50 to 60 years … we have put 6 billion metric tons of plastic waste in our environment.”
“We knew we needed to get rid of petroleum-based food packaging and replace it with something more sustainable, biodegradable and nontoxic,” says Philippe Democritou, chair of nanoscience and environmental bioengineering at Rutgers University School of Public. Director of the Institute for Health and Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences, as well as the Center for Nanoscience and Advanced Materials Research.
“And we asked ourselves at the same time, ‘Can we design food packaging with functionality to reduce food waste while increasing shelf life and enhancing food safety?’ And what we have come up with is a scalable technology, which enables us to turn biopolymers, which can be turned from food waste into smart fibers as part of a circular economy that can wrap food directly It is part of the new generation, ‘smart’ and ‘green’ food packaging.”
study in journal nature food Describes a new type of packaging technology that uses polysaccharide/biopolymer-based fibers.
Like the webs cast by the Marvel comic book character Spider-Man, the rigid material can be cut with a heating device that resembles a hair dryer and “shrink-wrapped” on foods of various shapes and sizes, such as Avocado or Sirloin Steak.
The resulting material that surrounds food products is strong enough to protect against injury and contains antimicrobial agents to fight spoilage and pathogenic microorganisms such as e coli and Listeria.
The research paper includes details of a technique called focused rotary jet spinning, a process by which biopolymers are produced. Quantitative assessments show that the coating extended the shelf life of avocados by up to 50%. According to the study, the coating can be washed off with water and degrades in soil within three days.
The new packaging aims to address a serious environmental issue: the proliferation of petroleum-based plastic products in the waste stream. Democriteau says efforts to curb plastic use, such as legislation to eliminate plastic shopping bag distribution at grocery stores in states such as New Jersey, could help. But he wanted to do more.
“I’m not against plastic,” says Democritou. “I am against the petroleum-based plastics that we keep throwing out there because only a tiny fraction of them can be recycled. In the past 50 to 60 years, during the era of plastics, we have added 6 billion metric metrics to our environment. Tons of plastic waste is dumped. They are slowly deteriorating from there. And these tiny bits are making it into the water we drink, the food we eat and the air we breathe.”
Growing evidence from Democriteau’s research team and others points to potential health effects.
The paper describes how the new fibers that surround food are linked to naturally occurring antimicrobial ingredients—thyme oil, citric acid, and nisin.
Researchers in the Democritou lab can program such smart materials to act as sensors, activating and destroying bacterial strains to ensure that food arrives spotless. Democritou says this will reduce the incidence of food spoilage, along with the growing concern over foodborne illnesses.
Additional co-authors are from Harvard University and Rutgers. The Harvard-Nanyang Technological University/Singapore Sustainable Nanotechnology Initiative funded the work.
Source: Rutgers University