Perspective: Researchers at Rutgers and Harvard have developed a plant-based spray coating that could replace petroleum-infused plastic products in food packaging. The process, called focused rotary jet spinning, involves spraying a material consisting of polysaccharide/biopolymer based fibers onto food products. Similar to shrink wrap, the material conforms to the shape and size of the item and is strong enough to protect it from damage during transit.

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The fibers contain natural antimicrobials, including thyme oil, nisin and citric acid, which protect against spoilage and pathogens such as Listeria and E. coli. In tests, the coating was able to extend the shelf life of avocados by 50 percent. The coating washes off easily with water and breaks down in the soil within three days, virtually eliminating the environmental issues associated with plastic containers and petroleum-based films.

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Researchers article published in the journal Nature Food.

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“I’m not against plastic surgery” said Philip Democritou, director of the Center for Nanotechnology and Advanced Materials Research at Rutgers. “I am against the petroleum-based plastics that we keep throwing away because only a small fraction of them can be recycled.

“Over the past 50-60 years, in the age of plastic, we have released 6 billion metric tons of plastic waste into the environment. They are slowly decomposing. And these tiny fragments end up in the water we drink. the food we eat and the air we breathe.”

The study was funded by Harvard Nanyang Technological University/Singapore Nanosustainable Initiative. There was no mention of commercializing the technology, but that is undoubtedly the end goal.

Image credit: Mark Stebnicki, Tim Miroshnichenko