Sustainability

Harvard researchers develop food packaging that could reduce waste while boosting food safety

The packaging system is biodegradable and uses techniques based on battlefield medicine.
new food packaging system
Photo courtesy of Disease Biophysics Group, Harvard University

Researchers at Harvard University have developed a biodegradable food packaging system that may elongate the shelf life of fresh foods, as well as reduce potential health risks caused by microbial contamination.

The new system is biodegradable and uses techniques based on battlefield medicine.

It employs a fiber manufacturing platform called Rotary Jet Spinning (RJS), which was designed to create antimicrobial fibers for wound dressings. The Harvard researchers applied this process to food packaging, adding a polymer called pullulan to ensure food safety.

“Wound dressings have the same purpose, in some ways, as food packaging—sustaining tissues, protecting them against bacteria and fungi and controlling moisture,” Huibin Chang, first author of the paper on this research, which was published in journal Nature Food, said in a statement.

“Sometimes an innovative idea comes like a thief in the night, it’s a surprise when it happens,” Kit Parker, senior author of the paper, said via interview.

There were two main goals behind the project, Parker said: addressing food safety and food waste, with a push to use sustainable materials.

The system has the potential to impact food waste, particularly in terms of distribution, according to the researchers. It’s estimated that 30-40% of the U.S. food supply is wasted, making up the largest category of material placed in landfills, per the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“A lot of our food waste happens before it ever even gets to the consumer’s table—it’s happening in transit,” Parker said. “So, this is a big thing if you’re talking about importing food.”

The packaging also has the potential to address food waste on the consumer side.

“The idea that I can buy my groceries on Saturday or Sunday and wait until supper time on Tuesday to make my guacamole and not have to worry about my avocado going bad, is a pretty big deal,” Parker said.

He emphasized the importance of finding a solution to food waste, highlighting recent supply distribution challenges.

“You got to start leaning forward on these things, the circumstances like we face today, come with no warning,” he said. “We’re facing some serious food shortages and food distribution problems, and so the idea is trying to develop technology to alleviate that.”

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