Packaging Materials Research is Flourishing

Packaging has long been known as an effective method of protecting food. Since its emergence on our supermarket’s shelves, the principles of packaging have highlighted safety. Its ability to maintain a product’s integrity while helping prevent any cross-contamination issues has always been a large selling point, and this explains the sustained uptake seen during the global health crisis.

After the packaging-free trend had been establishing itself in many sectors, including the bakery sector, the scales were then tipped and sales of packaged bakery items soared in 2020. This was fuelled mainly by hygiene concerns but if the right technology was applied, the process could also prolong the shelf-life of the product and maintain its quality during storage. 

With the global population slowly overcoming the pandemic, it’s expected that attention will shift once again to the environmental issues often associated with food and drink packaging. Experts predict an interesting situation – one where consumers will be considering both the safety and environmental impact of the products they’re purchasing. 

Recent trends analyses show that food manufacturers will soon find themselves in a position where choosing the best packaging for a product has never been more important. Choosing packaging that balances the manufacturer’s needs while addressing consumers’ concerns – regarding ethical, hygiene and environmental issues – is an emerging priority. Beyond their concerns, a food business’ brand can be strengthened and made to appeal to consumers if it wraps the product appropriately (reducing excess packaging) and uses environmentally friendly materials. 

Seaweed Coating

Materials researchers from Flinders University have recently partnered with German biomaterials developer One-Five to develop non-pollutive biopolymer coating materials for food packaging. The new seaweed extract-based degradable bioplastic film is designed to replace plastic coatings used in grease-resistant fast-food packaging, which often contains problematic chemicals such as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

The new prototype is said to meet the functional requirements of conventional grease-resistant packaging material while also presenting an environmentally circular solution. One-Five Co-Founder Claire Gusko said the product will help reduce harmful plastic pollution, while using environmentally regenerative feedstock.

“Seaweed cultivation helps to naturally rehabilitate marine environments, reduce greenhouse gases, and mitigate coastal erosion,” she said. “It’s important for us to use sustainable inputs upstream to ensure our products are environmentally safe, from cradle to grave.”

Extracts from the seaweed – which is native to the South Australian coastline – are transformed through a proprietary process to produce functional biopolymer sheets that can be applied to various surfaces.

“The seaweed extracts have a similar structure to the natural fibers from which paper is made,” said Dr Zhongfan Jia, a lead researcher from the Flinders Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology. “Our novel specialist treatments boost the grease-resistance feature of the seaweed via simple modifications, while not affecting biodegradability or recyclability of the coated paper.”

Flinders University and One-Five are now working towards transferring laboratory-scale processing to produce the coating in industrial volumes.

The Power of PHA

A handful of companies around the globe have harnessed the power of PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoate) to produce compostable straws, but, according to a recent press release, BIOLO is the first company to successfully use PHA technology to manufacture not only straws, but also fully compostable bags.

PHA is a renewable plant-based plastic alternative that is TÜV certified for soil and marine biodegradation as well as home and industrial composting. When PHA enters a bioactive environment, meaning any setting where live microbes are present, the biodegradation process begins. PHA is a natural fuel source for microbes. When PHA and microbes interact – whether in a home composting bin, a landfill, or a body of water – the microbes break down the PHA product entirely without leaving behind any harmful substances, including microplastics.

Other existing plastic-alternative packaging products do not entirely fulfill the needs of companies looking to reduce single-use plastics. Some alternatives are too weak to withstand the same use conditions as traditional plastics; other options are not forthright about end-of-life cycles.

For example, PLA (polylactic acid) is a plastic alternative that has been used over the past decade. However, PLA is only certified for industrial composting, which means it can only be fully biodegraded when sent to special industrial composting facilities. Unfortunately, the network of industrial composting facilities is limited and not readily accessible to much of the public.

The plastic waste crisis has motivated many companies to establish sustainability goals designed to reduce and, eventually, eliminate their use of single-use plastics.

BIOLO helps businesses in a variety of industries with plant-based packaging that delivers the same if not better performance than petroleum-based plastic packaging. 

Rotary Jet-Spinning Technology

Researchers from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health have developed a biodegradable, antimicrobial food packaging system that can extend the shelf life of fresh foods and eliminate microbial contamination.

You can read the rest of this article in the Winter issue of Asia Pacific Baker & Biscuit, which you can access by clicking here

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