Writing in Materials Today, a team of scientists from the USA and Italy has reviewed the current progress and recent advances in research into using polymer composites for food packaging to create novel packaging materials.
Study: Recent advances in polymers and polymer composites for food packaging. Image Credit: BravissimoS/Shutterstock.com
The study has investigated several aspects of the subject, with the aim of providing an overview of current research perspectives, commercial applications, and future prospects in the field of polymer and polymer composite food packaging research.
Challenges with the Growth in Demand for Safe Food Packaging
As much as the tale of human society since the industrial revolution has been one of success, the growing world population has caused environmental issues. With a growing population, increasing urbanization, and globalization comes a demand for increased food production, with one of the key concerns being food safety and storage methods. Safe, effective food packaging is one of the defining advances in the modern food industry.
Polymers are especially useful for this purpose due to their advantageous properties such as cost, easy production, lightweight, and excellent thermal, physical, chemical resistant, and corrosion-resistant properties. However, with the growing use of polymers in food packaging comes an issue of key concern to modern society: environmental damage.
The production of polymers for food packaging contributes to record greenhouse gas emissions, and as conventional synthetic polymers do not degrade easily in the environment, enormous amounts of food packaging waste accumulate in marine ecosystems and landfills. Food packaging is difficult to recycle, as most recycling infrastructure cannot handle contaminated plastic materials. Instead, food packaging is either disposed of in the environment or incinerated.
Another concern with food production is the safe storage of food during production, distribution, sale, and consumption. In 2010, the World Health Organization estimated that 420,000 people died from food-borne illnesses and six hundred million people fell ill worldwide in 2010.
Additionally, the economic loss from food-borne illnesses is huge, especially in low- and middle-income nations. According to the 2018 World Bank report, worldwide productivity losses due to food-borne diseases are estimated to be in the region of $92.5 billion, with healthcare costs estimated to be approximately $15 billion. Polymers are a well-recognized packaging material for improving food safety, which is a key factor determining social development.
Amongst the various proposed solutions to this issue, polymer composites have emerged as a research focus in materials sciences and the food industry. Polymer composites are composed of polymers with either nanoparticles or organic or inorganic compounds incorporated into them. Composite materials can enhance polymers and bestow them with additional properties beyond their original design and composition.
Nanomaterials have been employed as fillers to enhance the thermal, gas barrier, and mechanical properties of polymers, as well as imbuing them with antimicrobial properties and intelligent functions such as sensing and detection. Over the past 15 years, there has been a significant increase in research into novel polymer composite materials for food packaging.
In the current research paper, the authors have reviewed recent progress in the development of polymer and polymer composite food packaging. The authors have presented a comprehensive review over four hundred papers, reports, and regulations from the past five decades.
The paper provides an introduction to biodegradable polymers that are commonly studied for food packaging, as well as highlighting the increased demand for single-use packaging during the COVID-19 pandemic that has demonstrated the need for more sustainable packaging like bioplastics that can degrade more rapidly in the environment and are manufactured using sustainable, circular processes. Innovative applications of polymer composite materials for intelligent packaging, improved packaging, and active packaging are highlighted in the paper.
The research discusses properties such as improved UV protection using metal and metal oxide nanoparticle-polymer composites, multi-layered polymers that improve gas barrier properties, gas (oxygen, CO2, etc.) scavenging packaging which improves the internal environment by absorbing gases from the packaging headspace, ethylene scavenging packaging, and antimicrobial food packaging that incorporates metal and metal oxide nanoparticles such as silver and zinc oxide.
Other recent advances discussed include antioxidant emitting packaging that improves the quality and shelf life of food, and intelligent packaging that indicates when a product is reaching the end of its useable life by changing color. Data carrier packaging is being developed for use in identification and anti-theft applications.
Current safety and regulatory concerns are discussed in-depth, and finally, challenges and future opportunities in the field of polymer composite food packaging are presented in detail by the authors. One research gap identified by the study is the current lack of antiviral packaging, even though enteric viruses are a major cause of disease.
Given the urgent need to improve food security and safety as well as mitigate the environmental impact of polymer-based food packaging, innovative polymer composite food packaging is a key focus in materials sciences and the food industry.
Zhang, M et al. (2022) Recent advances in polymers and polymer composites for food packaging [online] Materials Today | sciencedirect.com. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1369702122000220