A Rutgers University researcher and a team of Harvard scientists have developed a biodegradable, antimicrobial food packaging solution to replace plastic. The nontoxic, plastic-free food packaging solution is plant-based and is applied on foods as a spray. The packaging is effective in protecting food products from pathogens, spoilage, and physical damage.

The innovative, spray-applied food packaging material comprises biopolymer fibers that are laced with natural, antimicrobial ingredients. The antimicrobial ingredients—such as thyme oil, citric acid, and nisin—serve as sensors that can eliminate bacterial strains on food products.

The antimicrobial fiber manufacturing technology, known as Rotary Jet-Spinning, was initially designed for the creation of wound dressings, but has been repurposed for food packaging. The polymer that makes up the fibrous packaging is called pullulan, which is an edible, tasteless, and naturally occurring polysaccharide. The packaging is also water soluble and biodegradable.

The novel packaging technology has been proven to greatly reduce microbial contaminants such as Escherichia coli, Aspergillus fumigatus, and Listeria innocua due to the high surface-to-volume ratio of the coating. Researchers have also demonstrated the packaging’s ability to extend the shelf life of an avocado. 

Philip Demokritou, Ph.D., who led the project, serves as director of the Rutgers Nanoscience and Advanced Materials Research Center, as well as the Henry Rutgers Chair in Nanoscience and Environmental Bioengineering at the Rutgers School of Public Health and Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute. Funded by Harvard-Nanyang Technological University’s Singapore Sustainable Nanotechnology Initiative (NTU-Harvard SusNano), Dr. Demokritou collaborated with Harvard scientists to develop the new packaging material. Dr. Demokritou’s latest advancement follows another recent success with NTU-Harvard SusNano in the creation of similar, “smart” food packaging materials.

Dr. Demokritou’s and his collaborators’ goal is to design food packaging that can extend the shelf life of food products, effectively enhancing food safety and reducing food waste. Dr. Demokritou states that the recent food packaging advancement provides a sustainable, scalable replacement for petroleum-based plastic packaging, and that it is important to replace petroleum-based plastics in the food system due to the associated environmental and human health risks.