Food waste turned into fresh packaging

Food packaging could be made from the by-products of fresh fruit, through research conducted by chemists from the University of New South Wales (UNSW).

Professors Jayashree Arcot and Martina Stenzel have been experimenting with the pseudostems of banana plants, and turning this discarded by-products of the banana harvest into a material suitable for food packaging.

The banana harvest is one of the most wasteful, with the useable fruit comprising only 12 per cent of the plant being used, and once the fruit is harvested, the plant dies. This makes banana plants particularly ripe for alternative uses.

“We were particularly interested in the pseudostems – basically the layered, fleshy trunk of the plant which is cut down after each harvest and mostly discarded on the field. Some of it is used for textiles, some as compost, but other than that, it’s a huge waste,” said Arcot.

After sourcing their banana pseudostems from plants grown at the Royal botanic Gardens in Sydney, the researchers cut up the pseudostems, dried the product at low temperatures, and then milled it into a fine powder. Subsequently, the researchers could extract the nano-cellulose, a material that can be used in any number of applications, said Stenzel.

“One of those applications that interested us greatly was packaging, particularly single-use food packaging where so much ends up in landfill,” said Stenzel.

When processed, the nano-celluslose could be used to make alternatives to plastic bags, or as a foam-based alternative to plastic containers used to hold meat and fruit. The organic cellulose is then not only biodegradable but recyclable.

“The material is also recyclable. One of our PhD students proved that we can recycle this for three times without any change in properties,” said Arcot.

In other trials, Arcot and Stenzel have used organic wastes such as cotton waste and rice paddy husks, however the annual nature of banana plants made this plant particularly attractive.

Now, the team are looking for an industry partner in the packaging manufacturing industry or a fruit growing business to take the technology to the market.