A new material made from crab shells and tree fibers could someday replace flexible plastic packaging, according to researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology. The product, made by spraying and then drying multiple layers of chitin derived from crab shells and cellulose from trees, forms a flexible film similar to that of plastic packaging. The material is also strong, transparent and compostable, and has reduced oxygen permeability.
"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," J. Carson Meredith, a professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, said in a university statement.
The team's research was recently published in the journal ACS Sustainable Chemistry and Engineering and was supported by the Georgia Tech Renewable Bioproducts Institute and the Georgia Research Alliance.
Consumers appreciate sustainable packaging, so flexible film packaging made from renewable sources such as crab shells and tree fibers is likely to be welcomed — as long as it comes at a reasonable cost. But even if it carries a higher price tag, shoppers are often willing to pay more for environmentally conscious and mission-based brands.
Besides the sustainability factor, another possible benefit of the naturally sourced flexible packaging film is that it's less permeable to oxygen, which could prolong the freshness of foods. According Meredith, one of the Georgia Tech researchers, the material showed up to a 67% reduction in oxygen permeability compared to plastic, meaning "it could in theory keep foods fresher longer."
Supplies of the crab shells and the tree fiber shouldn't be a problem, researchers said. That's because plenty of cellulose is already being produced, and there is a good supply of chitin-rich byproducts available from the shellfish industry.
Several areas would need additional attention, though. One is the industrial process to mass-produce chitin, a fibrous substance found in shellfish, insects and fungi. Another is the manufacturing process to enhance economies of scale so the new material could be cost-competitive with flexible packaging film. Also, additional research is needed to improve the new packaging material's ability to block water vapor.
Major beverage manufacturers are developing more sustainable materials for product packaging. The Coca-Cola Company reported earlier this year that 30% of the plastic bottles for its Dasani, SmartWater and Simply brands are partially made with a renewable, plant-based material called PlantBottle. The packaging is made by converting plant sugars into an ingredient for making PET plastic, which the company said reduces dependence on fossil fuels.
By 2025, PepsiCo said it plans to design 100% of its packaging to be recyclable, compostable or biodegradable. Danone and Nestlé Waters, the world's largest bottled-water manufacturers, have joined up with Origin Materials to create the NaturALL Bottle Alliance, which is working to produce packaging from 100% sustainable source — namely discarded wood-based products such as cardboard and sawdust.
It's possible that major food companies could also bring this crab shell-based film wrap to their snack brands as well. One thing is certain: Consumer demand for sustainability shows no sign of slowing down, and manufacturers will need to invest in more environmentally friendly packaging materials across categories to stay competitive.