Scientists develop plant-based antimicrobial food packaging to replace plastic
In an effort to produce eco-friendly alternatives to plastic food packaging and containers, a Rutgers scientist has has developed a biodegradable vegetable coating which can be sprayed on food, protecting against pathogenic and spoilage microorganisms and transport damage.
The evolutionary process could potentially reduce the negative environmental impact of plastic food packaging and protect human health.
“We knew we had to get rid of the petroleum-based food packaging that exists and replace it with something more sustainable, biodegradable and non-toxic,” said Philip Demokritou, director of the Nanoscience and Advanced Materials Research Center, and Henry Rutgers Chair in Environmental Nanoscience and Bioengineering at the Rutgers School of Public Health and Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute. “And we asked ourselves at the same time, ‘Can we design food packaging with functionality to extend shelf life and reduce food waste while improving food safety?'”
Demokritou added: “And what we have developed is a scalable technology, which allows us to transform biopolymers, which can be derived as part of a circular economy from food waste, into smart fibers that can wrap food directly. This is part of next-generation, “smart” and “green” food packaging.
The research was conducted in conjunction with scientists from Harvard University and funded by the Harvard-Nanyang Technological University/Singapore Sustainable Nanotechnology Initiative.
Their article, published in the scientific journal natural food, describes the new type of packaging technology using polysaccharide/biopolymer fibers. Like the webs cast by the Marvel comic book character Spider-Man, the stringy material can be spun from a heated device that resembles a hair dryer and “shrinkable” over foods of various shapes and sizes, such as a avocado or sirloin steak. The resulting material that wraps food products is strong enough to protect against bruising and contains antimicrobial agents to fight against spoilage and pathogenic microorganisms such as E.coli and listeria.
The research paper includes a description of the technology called focused rotary jet spinning, a process by which the biopolymer is produced, and quantitative evaluations showing that the coating extended the shelf life of avocados by 50%. The coating can be rinsed off with water and degrades in soil within three days, according to the study.
The new packaging aims to solve a serious environmental problem: the proliferation of petroleum-based plastic products in the waste stream. Efforts to limit plastic use, such as legislation in states like New Jersey to eliminate the distribution of plastic bags in grocery stores, can help, Demokritou said. But he wanted to do more.
“I’m not against plastics,” Demokritou said. “I am against petroleum-based plastics that we keep throwing away because only a tiny fraction of them can be recycled. Over the past 50 to 60 years, in the age of plastic, we have released 6 billion metric tons of plastic waste into our environment. They’re out there slowly degrading. And these tiny fragments end up in the water we drink, the food we eat and the air we breathe.
Mounting evidence from Demokritou’s research team and others points to potential health implications.
The article describes how the new food-encapsulating fibers are mixed with natural antimicrobial ingredients – thyme oil, citric acid and nisin. Researchers from the Demokritou research team can program these smart materials to act as sensors, activating and destroying bacterial strains to ensure food arrives intact. This will address growing concerns about foodborne illnesses and reduce the incidence of food spoilage, Demokritou said.
Harvard University scientists who conducted the research include Kevin Kit Parker, Huibin Chang, Luke Macqueen, Michael Peters and John Zimmerman of Disease Biophysics Group, John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences; and Jie Xu, Zeynep Aytac, and Tao Xu of the Center for Nanotechnology and Nanotoxicology, Department of Environmental Health, Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.
– This press release was provided by Rutgers University