(Loud), Biodegradeable Bags

According to stats from the Institute of Food Technologists, roughly 30% of the nearly 250 million tons of municipal waste disposed of each year comes from food packaging. Polymer scientists have for years been trying to develop biodegradable materials that could be used to hold our food. One attempt that made a big noise, literally, was the plant-based bag that Sun Chips were distributed in starting in January 2010. The packaging--which was 100% compostable, according to Sun Chips manufacturer Frito-Lay--was pulled off the shelves before year-end because the bags made a loud, unpleasant sound when being crumpled.

Biodegradeable Bags, Take Two

The Sun Chips bag was not the last we would see of the biodegradeable bag. And neither, probably, is this version being developed by the Israeli company Tipa. These concept packages, which are currently suitable for gooey substances, like peanut butter and jelly are made from polymers derived from actual food. They have all the capabilities of robust food packaging materials: They are elastic, won’t let in oxygen (to combat spoilage), and don’t allow in heat. Further, they are relatively silent when deformed. The packaging, which is being improved upon so that it can be used to store liquids, is designed to biodegrade in 180 days.

Brick-Reinforced Plastic

Current plastic packaging containers, such as the bottles that hold our soda, are permeable to oxygen. As a result, our food and drinks don’t last as long as they potentially could. Coke, for instance, loses its fizz over time, even when sealed. Enter a team of scientists from Texas A&M University who have developed a coating made of what they call “nano-bricks,” that are made of a polymer that contains a component of soil used in brick-making. The sealant gives a plastic package the airtight qualities of a glass container. Researchers say conventional plastic is 100 times more permeable to oxygen.

Sensor That Senses Spoilage

Food spoilage is not just a problem for consumers, it’s also a problem for grocers. The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that supermarkets lose upwards of 10% of their fruit and veggie inventory to spoilage. MIT chemistry professor Timothy Swager has doped carbon nanotubes with copper atoms, creating a system that can sense the presence of ethylene, a chemical gas released by produce as it ripens. Swager believes he could outfit the cardboard packing boxes that markets receive fruit and vegetable shipments in with sensors that could measure ethylene release and indicate where in the ripening process the contents of a box of produce stands. He estimates that the tools he’s developing, which would cost about a dollar, will allow supermarkets to slash their losses by 3%.

Germ-Killing Paper

Another nanoparticle-based technology that could help prevent against foodborne illnesses is so-called “killer paper,” which was developed by scientists at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University. The material is made up of silver nanoparticles, which are potent germ-killers. By using ultrasound, the scientists were able to deposit the nanoparticles on paper. When put in the presence of two foodborne pathogens, E. coli (which is typically linked to ground beef, but has been found in spinach and Serrano peppers in recent years) and Staphylococcus aureus (often found in meat, poultry, and egg products), the paper dispatched of the microbes in three hours.

Or Germ-Killing Film

An alternative to killer paper is the antimicrobial film developed by researchers at Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging IVV. The film involves a “controlled release” dose of sorbic acid--which is already used as a common preservative and is not known as a poison or allergen--to combat the microbes that begin to attack the surface of meat and seafood products and cause changes to a cut’s color, texture, and smell. The film has already been shown to be effective at eliminating E. coli on the surface of a pork loin, wiping out three-quarters of a colony in seven days when compared to a conventionally wrapped loin.

Intelligent Plastic Snitches on Spoilage

A team of scientists at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, is developing a color-changing film that can be used in packaging for meat and seafood products. Their material will change hue when a product has passed its expiration date, if the packaging is compromised, or if the item isn’t being stored in a cool enough place. The so-called “intelligent plastic” will be employed in conjunction with a process that involves pulling out all oxygen from packaging and replacing it with nitrogen or carbon dioxide--a technique known as modified atmosphere packaging.

Edible Containers

We’ll save the wildest notion for last: edible packaging. The same polymer technology behind Tide detergent pods is being used to make oatmeal packaging that dissolves in water while also flavoring the oatmeal. The New Jersey-based company MonoSol is also targeting the hot chocolate and coffee market for its water-soluble pods.

Food Containing Other Food

While MonoSol’s packaging melts into the meal, the edible containers developed by WikiCells, a technology developed by Harvard engineering professor David Edwards. Edwards told Co.Exist that WikiCells involves “englobing liquid, foam, or something else in a soft membrane held together by food particles that are being connected by electrostatic charges to each other and to a small amount of natural polymer.” What does that mean? Well, it’s basically hiding food within other food. Think hot chocolate inside something like a Cadbury egg.

Click here to preview the new Fast Company

Want to try out the new FastCompany.com?

If you’d like to return to the previous design, click the yellow button on the lower left corner.


The Food Packaging Of The Future: From Germ-Killing To Entirely Edible

Why not use food packaging for more than just conveying nutrition information? New innovations will soon have our food kept safe by everything from nano-bricks to delicious chocolate.

These days, we primarily rely on the packaging our food comes in to tell us what we’re buying, what it’s made of, and how healthy it is for us. But, the containers our food comes in are starting to take on more responsibility, and how we interact with them is changing, too. Coors Light cans, for instance, can report to prospective imbibers how cold their beer is. But, that’s just the beginning. Scientists are working to make packaging less environmentally burdensome, as well as creating advances that will allow a container to offer more information about the condition the item within is in. One day, packaging may even act on food to better preserve it.

Add New Comment


  • Accountforsignup

    Cannot read the text that accompanies the photos. The article header is blocking it. It applys to all articles.

  • Arman Nobari

    Am I the only one who wasn't bothered by the loud Sun Chips bags? Sound is a pretty small price to pay when you're talking about 100% biodegradable anything.