Sino-UK project developing sustainable alternative to plastic food packaging

Alternative food packaging is being developed at Nottingham University that is biodegradable and edible, an advance that could one day replace plastic packaging.

plastic packaging

Led by Prof Saffa Riffat from Nottingham’s Faculty of Engineering, the Sino-UK project is looking at the structure and functionality of sustainable natural materials, such as plant carbohydrates and proteins, to develop a packaging material that improves storage, safety and shelf life.

The team is said to be working on plastic films derived from konjac flour and starch, cellulose or proteins that are fully edible and harmless if accidentally eaten by people or animals.

According to Nottingham University, the researchers have found that plant carbohydrate and protein macromolecules bond together into a network structure during the film-forming process that provides the film with a required mechanical strength and transparent appearance for the film to be used in packaging.

We need to find degradable solutions to tackle plastic pollution

Prof Riffat said: “While plastic materials have been in use for around a century, their poor degradability is now known to cause serious environmental harm. This has led to more stringent recycling targets and even bans coming into force.

“Queen Elizabeth, for example, banned plastic straws and bottles from the royal estates in February 2018, and the EU plans to make all plastic packaging recyclable or reusable by 2030. We need to find degradable solutions to tackle plastic pollution, and this is what we are working on now.”

Fully-biodegradable bags could not only solve the safety and pollution issues of food packaging materials, but also lengthen the shelf life of fruit and vegetables and other fresh produce.

“In addition to being edible, degradable, strong and transparent, the packaging materials we are working on have low gas permeability, making them more air tight. This feature cuts moisture loss, which slows down spoilage, and seals in the flavour. This is of great importance for the quality, preservation, storage and safety of foods,” said Prof Riffat.

The primary market for these plant-based packaging materials will be superstores and food supply chains. The research team is also aiming to advance the technology for a range of packaging scenarios beyond food.

The project, currently supported by the £220,000 Horizon 2020 Marie Curie fellowship, will last two years with the potential to extend for another three to five years with further funding. The project is jointly investigated by Prof Fatang Jiang, who joined Nottingham from Hubei University of Technology in China.