Is Silk the Sustainable Packaging of the Future?

sustainable packaging to reduce food waste

Not all packaging is quite as ridiculous as Whole Foods’ peeled oranges in plastic, but it’s a good general rule to avoid plastic packaging whenever we can. Despite increased interest in green living, the average American still uses about 220 pounds of plastic every year, according to a 2015 Worldwatch Institute report. Between 22 and 43 percent of that plastic finds its final resting place in landfills, according to the United Nations Environmental Program. A more sustainable packaging option is sorely needed, and a team of biomedical engineers at Tufts University may have found the answer: silk.

The product that the engineers came up with actually seems like something out of a science fiction movie: a flavorless, odorless spray made of fibroin, a protein found in silk, that coats produce directly in contact with the skin, keeping it fresher longer. The protein is the source of silk’s strength, and that strength does incredible things when applied to the exterior of fruits and vegetables.

The researchers experimented by using the spray on strawberries and bananas, coating the fruits and then storing them at room temperature (71 degrees Fahrenheit) alongside uncoated fruits. The results were astounding: after nine days, the uncoated banana was so soft it could easily be crushed into mush, whereas the coated fruit remained firm and white inside. The uncoated strawberries shriveled so much they resembled dried versions of their former selves, whereas the coated ones were still beautiful and juicy inside.

“The results suggested that silk fibroin coatings prolonged the freshness of perishable fruits by slowing fruit respiration, extending fruit firmness and preventing dehydration,” the researchers wrote in the paper.

If the spray were to be produced on an industrial scale, it could not only reduce plastic waste — not to mention the shelf space needed to store produce in plastic packages — but food waste as well. Food waste is as pervasive a problem as plastic waste, with an estimated 30 to 40 percent of the U.S. food supply being wasted, an average of 20 pounds of food per person per month, according to the United States Committee for FAO.

This spray could be a solution to both of these problems. At least, that’s what lead researcher, Professor Fiorenzo Omenetto, is hoping for.

“It’s a wise way of thinking about how we manage the resources of our planet, to maybe use renewable systems as opposed to non-renewable systems,” he told ZME Science.

While we’re not expecting silk-sprayed bananas in the produce aisle of our local grocery store just yet, the development of such a product certainly bodes well for the future of sustainable packaging.

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Aging apple image via Shutterstock

Emily Monaco is a food and culture writer based in Paris. Her work has been featured in the Wall... More about Emily Monaco