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Scientists created biodegradable food packaging that will eliminate harmful bacteria build-up in foods

Scientists created biodegradable food packaging that will eliminate harmful bacteria build-up in foods

Recently, scientists at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in the US have developed bacteria-killing biodegradable food packaging that addresses two major concerns of the food industry today – food waste and eco-friendliness.

Using this packaging can help keep food items stay fresh for a long period without getting spoiled.

In one experiment, the team wrapped fresh strawberries in the new packaging and compared their freshness against strawberries packaged in conventional plastic boxes.

The strawberries stay fresh for seven days before developing mold in the new packaging, while the strawberries that were kept inside the plastic boxes went only four days before turning moldy.

The packaging is made from a corn protein called Zein, starch, and other naturally derived compounds. 

These materials were infused with a cocktail of natural antimicrobial compounds such as the oil from citric acid, and thyme. Unlike regular plastics, these materials are biodegradable.

When the material detects any rise in enzymes and humidity levels from harmful bacteria in the food, the fibers will release a tiny amount of antimicrobial compounds that will eliminate those bacteria. Thus keeping the food fresh.

Dangerous microbes such as E. Coli and listeria from the foods are the major cause of food poisoning, intestinal tract, and diarrhea. 

The antimicrobial compounds contained in this packaging can kill these bacteria and common fungi that cause foods to turn bad quickly.

So, this packaging will ensure increased food safety too.

Scientists created biodegradable food packaging that will eliminate harmful bacteria build-up in foods
New biodegradable food packaging that will eliminate harmful bacteria build-up in foods

“Food safety and waste have become a major societal challenge of our times with immense public health and economic impact which compromises food security,” said Professor Philip Demokritou, Adjunct Professor of Environmental Health at Harvard Chan School.

One of the most efficient ways to enhance food safety and reduce spoilage and waste is to develop efficient biodegradable non-toxic food packaging materials,” he added.

According to Professor Mary Chan, the director of NTU’s Centre for Antimicrobial Bioengineering, this packaging can be used for holding food items like fruits, vegetables, fish, raw meat, and other ready-to-eat meals.

“Vegetables are a source of wastage because even if they are refrigerated, they will continue to respire, leading to spoilage after a week or two,” said Professor Mary Chan. 

“With the anti-microbial packaging, there is a chance to extend their shelf life… and also make the vegetables and fruits look fresh with time,” she said. 

Multiple benefits

Even if this new packaging material is in its development phase, the researchers behind the packaging are already excited about what their invention could do for the food industry.

First of all, the packaging directly addresses the problem of food waste, with an extra two or three days of shelf life potentially offering both businesses and consumers the opportunity to save money and food.

In addition to this, the packaging is also praised as a strong alternative to plastic boxes, bags, and cartons because it is biodegradable – especially when used in scales.

As it stands, the world’s climate and pollution problems are heavily contributed by the use of plastics, including plastics used to package and transport food.

Scientists created biodegradable food packaging that will eliminate harmful bacteria build-up in foods
Traditional plastic is harmful to the environment

As per the university’s statement, 55 percent of Singapore’s household waste is made up of plastic and one-third of it comes from food packaging.

As such, it’s pretty obvious that the new material could help to alleviate some of the problems associated with food packaging today.

It was even more impressive to note that these compounds were released only when necessary – a feature that minimizes the risk of antimicrobials being consumed by consumers.

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“The smart release of antimicrobials only when bacteria or high humidity is present provides protection only when needed, thus minimizing the use of chemicals and preserving the natural composition of foods packaged,” said Mary Chan, director of the NTU Center for Antimicrobial Bioengineering.

“This invention would serve as a better option for packaging in the food industry,” said Professor Mary Chan.

Their research has been published in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces.

This bacteria-killing biodegradable food packaging development is a part of NTU’s 2025 Strategic plan to promote sustainable food and technological solutions.

They’re also currently working on developing other ways of creating biopolymer-based smart food packaging materials, with food safety and quality retention the main goal.

This is a promising development, and one of hopefully many more alternatives to regular plastic packaging. However, it may be a while before their creation becomes commercially available.


whats good today

We throw away a third of the food we grow – here’s what to do about waste

We throw away a third of the food we grow – here’s what to do about waste

The COVID pandemic has shown the fragility of our global food supply chains, with many supermarkets and restaurants in almost every country having experienced food shortages.

Millions of people in the UK alone have experienced severe food insecurity during COVID-19, according to a recent report by the country’s Foods Standards Agency. But food shortages were prevalent long before the pandemic.

At the same time, one-third of all food produced each year is squandered or spoiled before it can be consumed. Research also suggests that high-income countries waste as much food as sub-Saharan Africa produces.

This food waste then ends up in landfills to rot – which releases greenhouse gases. And when this is combined with the amount of energy it takes to produce, manufacture, transport and store this food, it contributes a staggering 3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide to our planet. To put that in context, if food waste was a country, it would be the third-highest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, after the US and China.

But the good news is there are numerous techniques, technologies and policies that together could help reduce global food waste at every point in the process of producing and consuming it.

Why is food wasted?

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation for the United Nations, lack of infrastructure, limited knowledge on storage and food handling, combined with unfavourable climatic conditions, can lead to a lot of food spoilage and waste in low-income countries.

On the other hand, in high-income countries, aesthetic preferences and arbitrary sell-by dates mean food easily becomes waste. Cosmetic blemishes, produce that is too ripe, too big, too little or even the wrong shape can lead to perfectly good fruits and vegetables going to waste.

Peppers, cabbage, cauliflower, parsnips, lettuce in rubbish bin.
Supermarkets throw out massive amounts of ‘waste’ food every year. joerngebhardt68/Shutterstock

As the global population continues to increase, it places real pressure on world food production. Indeed, the industry will need to grow by at least two-thirds by 2050 to ensure adequate nutrition for everyone in the world.

Yet, despite the dire need to become more resourceful, food waste and loss is at an all-time high. Making it clear that unless prompt action is taken, food shortages will soon become a long-term reality.

What can be done?

The key to tackling this issue is to have a resilient and resourceful “farm-to-fork” approach to help reduce food waste and to ensure the future of food security. Here are some things that can help combat food waste:

AI drones and precision farming

Collaboration with food producers and more investment in technological applications and overall infrastructure at the earlier stages of the food supply chain can drastically improve food waste and loss in low-income countries.

This is important because plant diseases and pests – along with poor harvesting techniques – can be a big factor in the high levels of food waste at this point in the food supply chain.

Our research also indicates that artificial intelligence (AI) powered drones can help farmers become more resourceful and reduce the overuse of pesticides in food production. This is important because pesticides can adversely affect the food ecosystem. They pollute water, deplete soil fertility and contaminate turf – all of which can result in food loss and waste. This approach also enhances crop yield and reduces operational costs as well as improves the health of livestock. So it’s also better for the environment.

Orange robot arms tend to crops.
The future of farming? kung_tom/Shutterstock

Target shoppers’ wallets

A big part of the food waste problem is changing how we shop and view food and our mindset around what constitutes waste. But research shows the best way to tackle food waste among consumers is to highlight the potential money that can be saved as well as the “feel-good factor”, or moral value, of doing a good thing for the environment.

recent study with households in London, UK and Ontario, Canada, found that a two-week money-based intervention – called “reduce food waste, save money” – helped participants to throw away 30% less food. Participants were given local information on food waste and costs, along with tips on how to improve food planning, efficiently purchase, store, and prepare food – and how to use leftovers to create new meals.

Similarly, new technology can help commercial kitchens reduce food waste by directly connecting behaviour changes to increased profits. For example, the Winnow software system calculates the costs of discarded food, correlating food waste to sales. This AI-powered system has allowed Ikea stores to reduce food waste by 50% in 2020, saving 1.2 million meals in the process.

Circular approaches and upcycling

A more creative approach to food waste comes via a circular food system, which prevents food waste from being discarded. It can, for example, be converted into renewable energy. Waste can even be transformed into more food for humans (for example, tofu from leftover soybeans), as well as animal feed.

A selection of wonky vegetables.
‘Don’t be put off by how I look.’ Keith Heaton/Shutterstock

Personal changes

While the problem of food waste can feel quite out of your hands as a consumer, there are things you can do to help.

Things like supporting businesses or restaurants that use waste foods in their products or meals. Planning your meals around sell-by dates. Not throwing out food if it’s a bit wilted or bruised and only buying what you need – especially on special occasions where food can often go uneaten and to waste.

You can also show supermarkets that “wonky” fruit and veggies are just as good as the “normal” shaped produce by buying these over the perfect looking pears or potatoes.

Ultimately, it’s not going to be any single thing that solves food waste, but a collective approach can enable us to make the changes that need to happen.


Kamran Mahroof & Sankar Sivarajah via The Conversation

Climate change: Jet fuel from waste ‘dramatically lowers’ emissions

Climate change: Jet fuel from waste ‘dramatically lowers’ emissions

A new approach to making jet fuel from food waste has the potential to massively reduce carbon emissions from flying, scientists say.

Currently, most of the food scraps that are used for energy around the world are converted into methane gas. But researchers in the US have found a way of turning this waste into a type of paraffin that works in jet engines. The authors of the new study say the fuel cuts greenhouse gas emissions by 165% compared to fossil energy.

This figure comes from the reduction in carbon emitted from airplanes plus the emissions that are avoided when food waste is diverted from landfill. The aviation industry worldwide is facing some difficult decisions about how to combine increased demand for flying with the need to rapidly cut emissions from the sector.

In the US, airlines currently use around 21 billion gallons of jet fuel every year, with demand expected to double by the middle of the century. At the same time, they have committed to cutting CO2 by 50%. With the development of battery-powered airplanes for long haul flights a distant prospect at this point, much attention has focussed on replacing existing jet fuel with a sustainable alternative. In fact the UK government has just announced a £15m competition to encourage companies to develop jet fuel from household waste products.

Food waste is a global problem and a major cause of global warming emissions

Current methods of making green jet fuel are based on a similar approach to making biodiesel for cars and heavy goods vehicles. It normally requires the use of virgin vegetable oils as well as waste fats, oil and grease to make the synthetic fuel. At present, it is more economical to convert these oils and wastes into diesel as opposed to jet fuel – which requires an extra step in the process, driving up costs. Now, researchers say that they have developed an alternative method able to turn food waste, animal manure and waste water into a competitive jet hydrocarbon.

Much of this material, termed wet-waste, is at present is turned into methane gas. However, the authors found a way of interrupting this process so it produced volatile fatty acids (VFA) instead of CH4. The researchers were then able to use a form of catalytic conversion to upgrade the VFA to two different forms of sustainable paraffin.

Full story by Matt McGrath at BBC News


931 Million Tonnes of Food Available at Consumer Levels Is Wasted per Year

931 Million Tonnes of Food Available at Consumer Levels Is Wasted per Year

Wasted in 2019: 931 million tonnes of food sold to households, retailers, restaurants and other food services; Study finds food waste is a global, not just developed world, problem; Food Waste Index report helps countries track progress on UN SDG.

An estimated 931 million tonnes of food, or 17% of total food available to consumers in 2019, went into the waste bins of households, retailers, restaurants, and other food services, according to new UN research conducted to support global efforts to halve food waste by 2030.

The weight roughly equals that of 23 million fully-loaded 40-tonne trucks — enough bumper-to-bumper to circle the Earth 7 times.

The Food Waste Index Report 2021, from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and partner organization WRAP, looks at food waste that occurs in retail outlets, restaurants and homes — counting both food and inedible parts like bones and shells. The report presents the most comprehensive food waste data collection, analysis and modeling to date, and offers a methodology for countries to measure food waste. 152 food waste data points were identified in 54 countries.

The report finds that in nearly every country that has measured food waste, it was substantial, regardless of income level. It shows that most of this waste comes from households, which discard 11% of the total food available at the consumption stage of the supply chain. Food services and retail outlets waste 5% and 2% respectively.