NEWS: Cutting Food Waste with Inexpensive ‘Slippery’ Packs


New research from Virginia Tech aims to cut down on the food waste left in sachets and convenience packages at food service outlets, as well as the consumer frustration it generates. The University has created a novel approach to creating super slippery industrial packaging. The study establishes a method for wicking chemically compatible vegetable oils into the surfaces of common extruded plastics. It was published in Scientific Reports and has a provisional patent.

These small, incremental amounts of sticky foods like condiments, dairy products, beverages, and some meat products that remain trapped in the packaging can add up to big numbers over time, even for a single household, contributing to the millions of kilos of perfectly edible food that consumers throw out every year.

Not only will the technique help sticky foods release from their packaging much more easily, but for the first time, it can be applied to inexpensive plastics such as polyethylene and polypropylene. These hydrocarbon-based polymers make up 55% of the total demand for plastics in the world today, meaning potential applications for the research stretch far beyond just ketchup packets, say the developers. They're also among the easiest plastics to recycle.

 “Previous SLIPS, or slippery liquid-infused porous surfaces, have been made using silicon- or fluorine-based polymers, which are very expensive,” said Ranit Mukherjee, the study’s lead author. “But we can make our SLIPS out of polymers, which are widely applicable to everyday packaged products.”

First created by Harvard University researchers in 2011, SLIPS are porous surfaces or absorbent polymers that can hold a chemically compatible oil within their surfaces via the process of wicking. These surfaces are not only very slippery, but self-cleaning, self-healing, and are more durable than traditional superhydrophobic surfaces. Applications can extend beyond food.

In order for SLIPS to hold these oils, the surfaces must have some sort of nano- or micro-roughness, which keeps the oil in place by way of surface tension. “But,” said Jonathan Boreyko, a study co-author, “We don’t have to add any surface roughness or nanoparticles. We actually found oils that are naturally compatible with the plastics.”

This research was fully funded through an industrial collaboration with Bemis North America.


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