Green light for plant-based food packaging



Bioplastic packaging that extends the shelf life of food and tells us when it is no longer fit to eat will result in less waste.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN estimates that a third of all food produced on the planet is wasted. This isn’t simply just an economic or ethical problem, but also causes major environmental damage due to greenhouse gas emissions.

In industrial countries, most waste is generated in retail outlets and households. One reason for this is that food is stamped with inaccurate “best before” dates, which mean that both retailers and consumers throw away perfectly edible food.

However, four years ago an EU project was launched with the aim of developing plant-based bioplastic packaging that not only extends the shelf life of foods, but also contains a sensor that notifies retailers and consumers of when the food inside is really no longer fit to eat. Today, Åge Larsen at SINTEF is ready to present the first demonstration packaging – made of PLA (polyactic acid) and bio-PET (polyethylene terephthalate).

‘Green’ plastic

“The packaging is made of biopolymers to which we have added nanoparticle components”, says Larsen. “This provides the packaging with new and improved food preservation properties. It is designed mainly to protect the contents from their surroundings and thus extend shelf life. We achieve this by means of improved oxygen barriers. Standard plastic packaging allows the entry of air which places restrictions on shelf life. Moreover, the new approach considerably reduces the carbon footprint”, he says.

Larsen says that the use of plant-based polymers is an expanding field. For example, biodegradable PLA is manufactured by cultivating carbohydrates via bacteria, while bio-PET are macromolecules derived from plant residues.

Four prototypes

The Portuguese-based company Logoplaste, in collaboration with SINTEF and other research partners, has developed a blow-moulded bottle, while the Greek project partner Argo has developed a pot designed to hold seafood such as crabs and prawns. Both types of container are covered with an oxygen-proof exterior coating developed by SINTEF.

In addition, a three-layer coating has been developed consisting of a cellulose-based film sandwiched by two biodegradable biopolymer layers that serve as oxygen barriers. This can be utilised in the same way as the rigid plastic currently used as food bowls.

The fourth prototype produced as part of this project is a blow-moulded film. This is essentially plastic foil similar to that used to make plastic bags and as oxygen-protective coverings for plates containing food.


The researchers have also developed sensors that can detect, for example, whether the temperature of the food has become too high or if a product has soured. One type of sensor consists of nanocapsules containing signal substances. If the temperature becomes too high or the pH value anomalous, the capsule shells decompose and release the signal substances.

“The sensors are sensitive to small changes and the packaging will change colour when the substances are released”, says Larsen. “It might be embarrassing for a food retailer to be faced with rows of red flashing lights, so we envisage developing substances that are not necessarily visible to customers when they are released. Manufacturers, on the other hand, will be able to use direct-reading instruments”, he says.

Larsen tells us that there will always be an issue regarding how the sensors are incorporated into the product. This must be a decision of the manufacturer. Sensors installed on the inside of the packaging and in contact with the food, such as in bottle caps or corks, will have to be approved by the food hygiene authorities.

Learn more: Green light for plant-based food packaging



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Packaging industry revolution: Interactive screens on your packages

Young woman shopping in the supermarket - via University of Sheffield

Young woman shopping in the supermarket – via University of Sheffield

Instead of reading a label, consumers could be interacting with an electronic screen on packaging in the future, thanks to a revolutionary new development by scientists at the University of Sheffield. 

The scientists collaborated with technology company Novalia to create a new way of displaying information on packaging, a move that could revolutionise the packaging industry.

This technology could be used in greetings cards or products where a customer could receive a simple message. More complex developments could include a countdown timer on the side of a packet to indicate when a timed product was ready – such as hair-dye, pregnancy tests or home-baking using a ‘traffic lights’ system.

In a paper published in the IEEE Journal of Display Technology, the team explain how a screen can be fixed onto packaging to display information.

The process involves printing electronic tracks onto paper and then fixing low-cost electronics and a polymer LED display to the paper using an adhesive that conducts electricity.

Working together, University of Sheffield scientists and Novalia also designed and constructed a touch-pad keyboard on the paper that allows a user to selectively ‘drive’ the LEDs in the display.

The research has been funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and testing so far has taken place on paper but the process could potentially be printed on other surfaces.

The team’s next steps are to create fully flexible organic displays on a plastic substrate that then fix onto the electronic tracks. The LED devices need to be low-cost and flexible enough to be used on all packaging.

Professor David Lidzey from the University’s Department of Physics and Astronomy said: “Labels on packaging could become much more innovative, and allow customers to interact with and explore new products. The use of displays or light emitting panels on packaging will also allow companies to communicate brand awareness in a more sophisticated manner.”

Chris Jones from Novalia said: “The paper-based packaging industry is worth billions of dollars. This innovative system we have developed with the University of Sheffield could give manufacturers a way to gain market share by being able to distinguish its products from competitors.”

Learn more: The future is here: Interactive screens on your packages



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Longer shelf-life for food thanks to breakthrough in packaging tech

Assoc Prof Thian Eng Han (left) and PhD student Ms Tan Yi Min have developed eco-friendly food packaging material. In this photo, they are holding up the chitosan-based GFSE composite film. Photo: Robin Choo

Assoc Prof Thian Eng Han (left) and PhD student Ms Tan Yi Min have developed eco-friendly food packaging material. In this photo, they are holding up the chitosan-based GFSE composite film. Photo: Robin Choo

Food products that last longer in their packaging, with little, or no chemical preservatives needed — that is the promise of a breakthrough in packaging technology made by two National University of Singapore researchers.

Associate Professor Thian Eng San from the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Ms Tan Yi Min, a PhD student, have developed an environment-friendly food packaging material that slows down fungal and microbial growth, and is free of chemical additives.

 The researchers took a naturally microbial-resistant and biodegradable composite film based on chitosan — a renewable material derived from crustaceans’ exoskeletons — and combined it with grapefruit seed extract to enhance its antimicrobial and antifungal properties.

Bread samples packaged with this composite film was found to last more than three times longer, compared with those in conventional synthetic packaging film, where visible mould appeared after three days.

With the composite film, mould growth started on the 10th day.

With this new material, there is no need to use silver ions to give it anti-microbial properties — as is the current practice on packaging films — since there is a small possibility of the silver leeching into the food, which can be harmful if accumulated in large amounts in the body.

Learn more: Longer shelf-life for food thanks to breakthrough in packaging tech



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