Researchers Develop Biodegradable Plastic That Extends The Shelf Life Of Food

The product is made from chitosan, which could be an issue for vegetarians. Aleph Studio/Shutterstock

In modern life, food is readily available for us, and though we may think little of it, it often comes with masses of packaging. Almost every food item you’re likely to buy comes covered in plastic, which often is simply thrown away to end up in landfill. Yet a team of researchers think they may have developed a solution. This could not only solve the problem of plastic by wrapping our food in a biodegradable material, but may also go some way to reducing the amount of food that is thrown away by extending the product's shelf life.

The new material is being touted as an environmentally friendly alternative for food packaging, and exploits a natural biodegradable material derived from the shells of shrimp and crabs: chitosan. Already used in a variety of contexts, from wine making to blood clotting, the researchers fortified a chitosan-based film with grapefruit seed extract, which has natural antibiotic properties. By forming a material using both components, the team from the University of Singapore developed a product that not only biodegraded naturally, but also kept food fresher for longer. There might be a slight hitch though, as chitosan is not vegetarian.

Not only is the extract from grapefruit seeds thought to be antibacterial, but there is evidence to suggest, claim the researchers, that it also has strong antioxidant and fungicidal qualities. This, along with the composite material's ability to block ultraviolet light, slows down the degradation of the perishable product within, such as bread, extending its shelf life. “Increasing attention has been placed on the development of food packaging material with antimicrobial and antifungal properties, in order to improve food safety, extend shelf-life and to minimize the use of chemical preservatives,” explains associate professor Thian Eng San, who spent three years perfecting the formula.

Hopefully, this could lead to an overall reduction in the amount of food that is thrown away. It’s thought that around 50 percent of all food produced ends up in the bin before it has had the chance to reach the plate. In fact, recent research found that in U.K. households alone, 34,000 tonnes (37,500 tons) of raw and cooked beef are thrown out every year, totaling around $360 million of meat. This comes in at the equivalent of 300 million beef burgers. This colossal amount of waste is not only incredibly inefficient and costly, but the food could be used to feed those who are starving. 

The newly developed film still retains a flexibility and strength similar to that of current plastics being used for food products, just with added environmental benefits. As mentioned above though, the fact that it is not vegetarian could be a potential problem. The researchers plan on conducting further tests to improve the product, while also further testing how it could be used commercially. 

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