UK researchers develop sustainable, edible food packaging

UK researchers develop sustainable, edible food packaging
Credit: Shutterstock.com/ StudioSmile

Researchers in the UK have developed a biodegradable and totally edible food packaging to replace plastic materials.

The cling film-like wrap is made from plant carbohydrates and proteins and is positioned to improve storage, safety and shelf life whilst simultaneously reducing plastic pollution.

The project is led by Professor Saffa Riffat from the University of Nottingham, who’s team has investigated the structure and functionality of sustainable natural materials.

Using a special technical approach, the team is now working on plastic films derived from konjac flour and starch, cellulose or proteins that are fully edible and harmless if accidentally eaten by people or animals.

The researchers have found that plant carbohydrate and protein macromolecules bond together into a special network structure during the film-forming process.

The network structure provides the film with a required mechanical strength and transparent appearance for the film to be used as packaging materials.

The project is jointly investigated by Marie Curie Research Fellow, Professor Fatang Jiang, an expert in biodegradable polysaccharide materials for moisture control, thermal insulation and infiltration.

Prof Riffat said: “While plastic materials have been in use for around a century, their poor degradability is now known to cause serious environmental harm. This has led to more stringent recycling targets and even bans coming into force.

“Queen Elizabeth, for example, banned plastic straws and bottles from the royal estates in February 2018, and the EU plans to make all plastic packaging recyclable or reusable by 2030.

“We need to find degradable solutions to tackle plastic pollution, and this is what we are working on now.”

Fully-biodegradable bags could not only solve the safety and pollution issues of food packaging materials, but also efficiently lengthen the shelf life of fruit and vegetables and other fresh produce.

“In addition to being edible, degradable, strong and transparent, the packaging materials we are working on have low gas permeability, making them more air tight,” said Prof Riffat.

“This feature cuts moisture loss, which slows down spoilage, and seals in the flavour. This is of great importance for the quality, preservation, storage and safety of foods.”

The primary market for these plant-based packaging materials will be superstores and food supply chains.

The research team is also aiming to advance the technology for general packaging in construction, express delivery and magazines, etc.

The project, currently supported by the £220,000 Horizon 2020 Marie Curie fellowship, will last two years with the potential to extend for another three to five years if further funding is secured.