Did You Know? Crabs and Trees Might Replace Flexible Plastic Soon

Plastic wrap is an essential thing in kitchens and bakeries. And while a lot of companies claim that their products are recyclable, these items mostly don’t get recycled. In 2017, The Independent stated that disposed plastic that ends in landfills and waters becomes a magnet for poisons. With the cycle that goes on in life, it will poison us in return, slowly but sure.

The thing is, humanity can barely live without plastic. If you want to go total plastic free, it’s going to be excruciatingly hard. Basically, plastic is our “savior” but also our downfall. There are, of course, available alternatives for plastic wrap like in this article. But maybe the green version of plastic wrap (that looks like one) might come soon.

plastic wrap for bread

Now, who would’ve thought that crab shells and tree fibers are going to be the main materials that can replace plastic wrap? In fact, they do a better job at keeping the food fresh longer than the ones you can find in markets right now. Well, it’s all thanks to researchers of Georgia Institute of Technology that we’re going to have compostable flexible plastic.

The research team behind this innovation includes Meisha Shofner, an associate professor in the School of Materials Science and Engineering and the interim executive director of the Renewable Bioproducts Institute, John R. Reynolds, a professor in the schools of Chemistry and Biochemistry and Materials Science and Engineering, and Chinmay Satam, a graduate student at Georgia Tech, and J. Carson Meredith, Georgia Tech’s School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering professor.

Crab and tree plastic

On the back of your mind you might ask, “Wait, what? Crab shells and tree fibers?” Even though we always know that crab shells are hardy, they actually have a substance called “chitin nanofiber”, now the tree fibers or cellulose have got chemicals to keep crab shells’ chemicals stay in place.

Chitin itself is a fibrous substance that consist of polysaccharides. You can find these not only in crabs, but also in other shellfish (obviously), insects, scales of fish, and fungi. Usually, this substance is useful in medicine and biotechnology industries such as food processing and strength-increasing for paper products.

Additionally, tree cellulose is a biopolymer, which is an important component that you usually find in green plants like trees, algae, and oomycetes (fungus-like microorganisms in water). You’ll find about 50% to 90% of this cellulose in most plants, with cotton fiber containing the most (90%).

Combined together, the researchers have finally created a flexible film that is similar and competitive with plastic packaging.

According to R & D Magazine, the research team made this flexible “plastic” by suspending cellulose and chitin nanofibers in water and spraying them onto a surface in alternating layers. After the material is fully dried, the material is flexible, strong, transparent and compostable.

Meredith explained, “The main benchmark that we compare it to is PET, or polyethylene terephthalate, one of the most common petroleum-based materials in the transparent packaging you see in vending machines and soft drink bottles,”

Meredith continued, “Our material showed up to a 67 percent reduction in oxygen permeability over some forms of PET, which means it could, in theory, keep foods fresher longer.”

The crystalline structure found in chitin and tree cellulose is the one that plays a role to keep food fresh. It prevents gas molecules like oxygen going through the flexible film. In contrast, plastic material such as PET doesn’t have any crystalline content, so gas can find a path and penetrate the material.

nanocrystals under UV ray
an example of nanocrystals under UV ray. work by Jbeatley Wikimedia Commons

“We recognized that because the chitin nanofibers are positively charged, and the cellulose nanocrystals are negatively charged, they might work well as alternating layers in coatings because they would form a nice interface between them,” said Meredith.

“It’s difficult for a gas molecule to penetrate a solid crystal, because it has to disrupt the crystal structure. Something like PET on the other hand has a significant amount of amorphous or non-crystalline content, so there are more paths easier for a small gas molecule to find its way through,” Meredith continued.

People who work with plastic wrap know how important that product is to keep food from spoiling. With this new crab+tree plastic wrap, you can minimize the risk of spoiling further, and you’ll worry less.

The technology behind this compostable, eco-friendly plastic wrap has piqued a lot of people’s interest for some years already. It’s because they’re not only environmental-friendly but also low-cost and easy to recycle.

“We had been looking at cellulose nanocrystals for several years and exploring ways to improve those for use in lightweight composites as well as food packaging, because of the huge market opportunity for renewable and compostable packaging, and how important food packaging overall is going to be as the population continues to grow,” said Professor Meredith.

The challenge

New innovations or inventions always comes with a set of challenges. Since humanity has been depending on plastic, the processing methods to produce this flexible film is not yet available for commercial or mass production. Therefore, a cost-effective manufacturing process is not yet available at this point.

Other than that, the study authors also said that they need to do more research so that the bioplastic film would be able to block water vapor. Quality improvement is still one of their concerns.

The good news is, Meredith said that there are a lot of supply of chitin-rich byproducts from shellfish food industry as well as some ready amount of cellulose. Therefore, there’s more than enough material to make this eco-friendly flexible films as a food packaging alternative.

Let’s just keep hoping that these researchers find the solution to mass-producing challenge and the others soon, since this green replacement has been long overdue. In the meantime, we can keep searching for the more eco-friendly alternatives that will make the environment healthier and happier.

Can’t get enough of new sustainable, green plastic alternatives and innovations? Be sure to read another article about that here. Don’t forget to tell us what you think in the comments!




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