In a groundbreaking development, scientists at The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) have created a potential solution to the mounting problem of plastic waste in landfills.

Plastic food packaging, known for its contribution to environmental contamination, may soon be replaced by edible, transparent, biodegradable material.

The researchers’ findings were published in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture.

The potential of bacterial cellulose

Plastic packaging has long been a major contributor to environmental pollution due to its heavy reliance on petrochemicals and its inability to biodegrade.

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To tackle this issue, the team at CUHK turned their attention to bacterial cellulose (BC), an organic compound derived from certain types of bacteria. BC has gained recognition for its sustainability, wide availability and non-toxic nature, making it a promising alternative to plastics.

Impressive properties of BC

Professor To Ngai from the Department of Chemistry at CUHK, who is also the corresponding author of the study, explained that BC’s exceptional tensile strength and versatility make it an ideal candidate for food packaging.

Previous research on BC has explored its use in intelligent packaging, smart films and functionalised materials through blending and coating techniques.

These studies demonstrate the potential of BC as a replacement for single-use plastic packaging materials.

Sustainable production method

Unlike cellulose found in plants, BC can be produced through microbial fermentation, eliminating the need for tree or crop harvesting. This production method avoids contributing to deforestation or habitat loss, making BC a more environmentally friendly alternative to plant cellulose.

Addressing BC’s limitations

One of the challenges in adopting BC-based materials has been their sensitivity to moisture in the air, which adversely affects their physical properties. In their paper, the researchers proposed a novel solution to overcome this limitation.

By incorporating specific soy proteins into the BC structure and coating it with an oil-resistant composite, they successfully developed an edible, transparent and robust BC-based composite packaging.

With this breakthrough, scientists are optimistic about the potential for BC to revolutionise the food packaging industry.

By replacing plastic with an edible and biodegradable alternative, we may soon witness a significant reduction in plastic waste, contributing to a cleaner and healthier environment.