Since the first fully synthetic plastic was invented in 1907, plastic has gone on to become a mainstay in our daily lives. Admittedly, plastic is good for keeping food fresh. However, the continuous use of plastic materials puts the environment at risk because they are not biodegradable, and they end up polluting the environment. Of course, the usual rationalization is that plastic can be recycled. But research has shown that only 9% of the plastic produced ever gets recycled. Thus, it seems this love-hate relationship is not ending soon as the remaining 91% that never get recycled end up polluting the environment.
Well, there is a new smart packaging with the potential to change how we store food and reduce plastic waste. You read that right; this alternative packaging developed by a team of researchers from the Center for Nanotechnology and Nanotoxicology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and their colleagues at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, is “smart” as it is infused with enzyme-sensing fibers.
The packaging is primarily made from zein, a biodegradable type of corn protein, and other biopolymers extracted from food waste. Zein is gotten from corn gluten meal which is a waste by-product of ethanol production. Essentially, this alternative packaging finds a new use for waste products without adding more pollutants to the environment.
Now to the smart part. The material contains a mesh of nanoscale fibers produced through electrospinning. The mesh is infused with natural antimicrobial compounds to counter the actions of food spoiling enzymes released by bacteria like Listeria. These antimicrobials aren’t released by default. Instead, the nanoscale fibers are programmed to detect increased humidity levels and the presence of food-spoiling enzymes and release small amounts of antimicrobial compounds.
The smart release of the antimicrobials increases the shelf life of the food stored inside. Strawberries wrapped with this new material stayed fresh for seven days before developing mold, two days longer than those stored in regular plastic containers.
With the material still in its early stage of development, coupled with the fact that electrospinning is a scalable technology, we can expect this new smart packaging material to gain widespread use in the near future. The material’s potential to make food storage better is immense, and it comes as a breath of fresh air in the food packaging and environmental sustainability space. Plastic no longer has to be a necessary evil, as we gradually do away with it.