Created a plant-based antimicrobial food wrap that can replace plastic

In order to create environmentally friendly alternatives to plastic food packaging and containers, a Rutgers scientist has developed a biodegradable plant-based coating that can be sprayed on food, protecting it from pathogens and spoilage microorganisms and transport damage.

The scalable process can potentially reduce the environmental impact of plastic food packaging, as well as protect human health.

“We knew we needed to get rid of the packaging of petroleum-based foods that were there and replace them with something more sustainable, biodegradable and non-toxic,” said Philippe Democritu, director of the Center for the Study of Nanoscience and Advanced Materials. Henry Rutgers Department of Nanoscience and Environmental Bioengineering at the Rutgers School of Public Health and the Institute of Environmental Science and Occupational Health. At the same time, we asked ourselves, “Can we design food packaging with functionality to extend shelf life and reduce food waste while increasing food safety?”

Democritus added: “And what we’ve come up with is a scalable technology that allows us to turn biopolymers, which can be produced as part of a circular economy from food waste, into smart fibers that can wrap food directly. It’s part of a new generation of “smart” and “green” food packaging. ”

The study was conducted jointly with scientists from Harvard University and funded by Harvard-Nanyang University of Technology / Sustainable Nanotechnology Initiative in Singapore.

Their article, published in the scientific journal Nature Food, describes a new type of packaging technology using polysaccharide / biopolymer-based fibers. Like the nets cast by the Marvel Spider-Man comic book character, the tough material can be twisted by a heater that looks like a hair dryer and “wrapped” on foods of various shapes and sizes, such as avocados or steak fillets. The resulting food wrapping material is strong enough to protect against bruising and contains antimicrobial anti-spoilage agents and pathogens such as E. coli and Listeria.

The research paper includes a description of a technology called focused rotary jet rotation, the process by which the biopolymer is produced, and quantitative estimates showing that the coating extends the shelf life of avocados by 50 percent. According to the study, the coating can be rinsed with water and decomposed in the soil within three days.

The new packaging is aimed at solving a serious environmental problem: the proliferation of petroleum-based plastic products in the waste stream. Efforts to curb the use of plastics, such as legislation in states like New Jersey to eliminate the proliferation of plastic shopping bags in grocery stores, could help, Democritus said. But he wanted to do more.

“I’m not against plastic,” Democritus said. “I am against petroleum-based plastics, which we continue to throw away because only a small part of them can be recycled. In the last 50 to 60 years, during the plastics era, we have placed 6 billion metric tons of plastic waste in our environment. They are there, degrading slowly. And these little fragments go into the water we drink, the food we eat, and the air we breathe.

Growing evidence from the research team of Democritus and others points to potential health consequences.

The document describes how the new fiber encapsulating food is provided with naturally occurring antimicrobial ingredients – thyme oil, citric acid and nisin. Researchers from the Democritus research team can program such intelligent materials to act as sensors, activating and destroying bacterial strains to ensure that food arrives unsullied. This will address growing concerns about foodborne diseases and reduce the incidence of food spoilage, Democritus said.

reference: Chang H, Xu J, Macqueen LA, et al. The high-performance coating with biodegradable antimicrobial pullulan fibers extends shelf life and reduces weight loss in the avocado model. Nat Food. Published online June 20, 2022: 1-9. doi: 10.1038 / s43016-022-00523-w

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