The potential to completely eliminate petroleum-based food packaging material may be closer than ever before thanks to research being conducted at Karlstad University, where researchers have demonstrated that a starch and polymer mix is as effective at protecting food as traditional packaging.
"Food packaging has to protect and extend the shelf life of food, and should also work during transport," says Asif Javed, doctor in chemical engineering at Karlstad University. "To meet these demands, a protective barrier is needed in paper-based packing such as those used for juice or dairy."
To protect food, paper-based packaging needs to be coated to prevent both water and oxygen from seeping through the packaging and thus spoiling what is inside the package. Generally, to protect foods from spoiling, coatings are derived from petroleum-based plastic. Yet, researchers have recently discovered an as-effective-as-plastic bio-based material replacement for the fossil-based raw material that relies on a combination of lignin from wood and starch from potatoes or maize.
"In my research, we used a mixture of starch and lignin to create a protective barrier that is up to scratch," says Asif Javed. "If new materials are to be used, they have to be at least as good as or better than petroleum-based material — regarding extending the shelf life of food, as well as the cost and effectivity of manufacture and transport. I have also worked with biodegradable mixtures of starch and some petroleum-based macromolecules. Although such material is not 100% based on renewable resources, it has the important advantage of naturally degrading without leaving behind dangerous microplastics, should it end up in forests, lakes or oceans."
While a number of bio-based alternative packaging already exists, additional research is still necessary to replace petroleum-based material entirely.
"I hope that we will be able to do more research in this area," says Asif Javed. "In our region, there are good prospects for research on fibre-based processes and products in partnership with the industry."