The Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) announced in late 2014 that it would lead an industry consortium in a project to develop and test new active packaging that protects perishables by keeping them away from contact with oxygen.
The consortium would include a number of local and international companies, such as Mitsui Chemicals, Toyo Ink and Pieget Chemicals. Its focus was to formulate a layered plastic that was not only extremely effective at keeping out oxygen and moisture, but would also absorb oxygen any that may be present in the packaging.
Two years later, five scientists led by Li Xu, of A*STAR’s Institute of Materials Research and Engineering, has developed a three-layer laminated plastic film with a clay-polymer composite inserted between two plastic layers.
Dr Li told the Straits Times that the plastic layers were made of common plastic films like polyethylene terephthalate, which are widely used in food packaging, while the clay is naturally sourced.
"The special structure of the material creates a highly efficient barrier that prevents gas molecules like oxygen from coming into contact with the contents of the package," he said. The material has been tested more than 20 times on food such as grains, cakes and bread.
Dou Yee Enterprises, one of A*STAR’s research partners with which it is now working to make retail product, estimates that the recyclable material will block 150 times more oxygen than normal plastic packaging. Cakes with an expiry window of a week would lengthen to at least nine days with the material, its tests found.
This could even put a dent in Singapore’s growing food waste problem, which grew by nearly half in the decade to 2016.
The previous year, the 450-square-kilometre island produced 785,500 tonnes of grocery waste, much of which was from items left unsold after their best-before date.
In America, it is estimated that arbitrary expiry dates and “food freshness” labels may have also been responsible for premature food disposal by more than 90% of Americans.
“Improvements to mundane materials like the plastic wrapping in your local supermarket are often taken for granted but technology proves that such innovations could significantly change the world we live in,” said Andy Hor, director of A*STAR’s materials research institute, when the project began.
“Our new material will help reduce food wastage considerably, and allow consumers to more accurately identify when food actually spoils.”