With the recent discovery of microplastics in the GI tracts of humans due to, among other things, plastic food packaging exposure, it is more critical than ever that a plastic-free alternative to packaging food is developed.

Enter researchers from the University of Nottingham who have been hard at work on a solution: 100% biodegradable and edible food packaging.

Composed of plant carbohydrates and proteins, the packaging could potentially replace the controversial plastic packaging material that often pollutes the world’s oceans and enters into the food chain by way of marine life who ingest the material.

Led by Professor Saffa Riffat from the faculty of engineering at the University of Nottingham, the development, referred to as the Sino-U.K. project, has resulted in packaging that is both safe to ingest and improves the shelf-life, safety and storage of packaged foods.

In addition to their work with sustainable natural materials for use in buildings and energy technologies, the team developed a film composed of konjac flour, starch, cellulose and proteins, all of which are fully edible and harmless if accidentally ingested by humans or animals, thereby eliminating a common issue in plastic food packaging.

The team discovered that plant carbohydrates and protein macromolecules adhere to each other, creating a network structure through the process of film-forming. This structure is what gives the film the necessary mechanical strength and transparent quality appropriate for packaging material.

According to Professor Riffat: "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."

An entirely biodegradable packaging alternative could potentially solve a variety of safety and pollution issues inherent in the food packaging industry, as well as lengthening the shelf life of fruits and vegetables, which would help address the global issue of food waste, according to the team.

"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," Professor Riffat added.

The team envisions superstores and food supply chains as being a primary market for the plant-derived packaging with the future goal of advancing the material so it would also be appropriate for the construction industry.

Solutions to safely and effectively package food to prevent both pollution and waste are being sought all over the world, with creative solutions ranging from software that locates areas which would benefit from leftover restaurant food donations, to a bumpy label to alert consumers that a product is nearing expiration.

To contact the author of this article, email mdonlon@globalspec.com