Across the globe, discarded food packaging is polluting public spaces and pushing already overloaded landfills to the brink. Recognizing the harm that this leftover packaging does to the environment and the limitations associated with recycling it, Canada is pursuing research into biodegradable, eco-friendly food packaging developed using radiation technology.
“The race to develop biodegradable packing material or eco-friendly ‘active’ food packaging is gathering momentum,” said Monique Lacroix, Director of the Research Laboratories in Sciences Applied to Food (RESALA) and researcher at the Canadian Irradiation Centre (CIC). “Packaging based on natural polymers can help address the challenges of non-biodegradable food wraps and help reduce a major source of environmental pollution.”
For over 15 years, scientists at RESALA and CIC have been using their training with the IAEA to research and develop biodegradable, ‘active’ packaging materials. They do this by taking raw renewable materials such as starch or proteins and combining them with nanocellulose, which is a natural polymer that contains nano-sized cellulose fibres and then irradiating them (see Irradiating polymers and nanocomposites). This combination leads to materials with improved properties compared to conventional materials in terms of durability, biodegradability and better water resistance.
“These polymers are not naturally very sturdy, but when you add nanocellulose and subject it to radiation, the polymers become tough and offer more reliable, sturdy coverage and protection of food,” explained Lacroix. “Then when we add specific bioactive materials such as essential oils from thyme, the packaging is considered ‘active’ because these additions actively help to extend the shelf life of food and assure food safety.”
A growing reliance on plastic
Production of plastic has surged over the past 50 years, from 15 million tonnes in 1964 to 311 million tonnes in 2014, with packaging accounting for around 26% of the total volume of plastics used worldwide, according to a 2016 World Economic Forum report on the future of plastics. The report projects that production will double in the next 20 years, as reliance on plastic grows. In Canada, for example, 9 to 15 billion plastic packages are used each year.
Most packaging material is made of materials like paperboard coated with wax and plastic because of their wide availability, relatively low cost, durability and strength. However, these packaging materials are often not biodegradable, and recycling them tends to be technologically impractical and economically unviable, due to contamination by food stuff and biological substances.
Global research for more eco-friendly material
Radiation processing is an attractive option for the food packaging industry worldwide. To build their skills and knowledge in this area, many researchers are turning to IAEA-supported projects as an avenue for collaborating with and learning from experts like the scientists at RESALA and CIC. Among these is a five-year IAEA project that began in 2013 and has brought together scientists from 14 countries: Algeria, Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, Egypt, Italy, Malaysia, the Philippines, Poland, Romania, Thailand, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States. They are now sharing ideas and strengthening their skills in developing advanced packaging material for food products using radiation technology.
“Global research is focusing more and more on eco-friendly packaging material in response to new regulations where governments are making industries responsible for their use of plastic, including paying for the waste being generated because of plastic packaging,” Lacroix said. “Irradiating natural polymers to make new materials is a promising avenue to further enhance product safety and contribute to the environmental goal of reducing food packaging waste.”
This is one of several topics that will be discussed by more than 300 experts and officials at the IAEA International Conference on Applications of Radiation Science and Technology (ICARST) happening from 24 to 28 April 2017. Find out more about the conference here and get updates on social media, #ICARST17.
Irradiating natural polymers to make new materials is a promising avenue to further enhance product safety and contribute to the environmental goal of reducing food packaging waste.