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Better than plastic? Why Chitosan may be the new alternative for food packaging

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Examples of Chitosan Bioplastic. Wyss Institute photo Examples of Chitosan Bioplastic. Wyss Institute photo

(NBC News) - Packaging made from recycled crustacean shells could reduce the need for plastic wrappings to preserve fresh vegetables, reduce oil consumption and give food a longer shelf-life, a Spanish study said. Chitosan, a bioplastic made by isolating organic matter from shrimp shells, helped preserve the shelf-life of baby carrots, said the study, published in the journal Postharvest Biology and Technology.

"You can almost double the shelf-life of carrots with chitosan," said Koro de la Caba, a professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of the Basque Country, who wrote the study. "It is edible and better for the environment than plastics," and the coating can't be tasted, she said.

Consumers could buy vegetables from a farmers' market and spray them with chitosan to make them last longer in the fridge — if the product could be mass-produced effectively. The study "Quality attributes of map packaged ready-to-eat baby carrots by using chitosan-based coatings" showed that food waste can be a value-added product, once technologies for processing and refining it become economically viable on a large scale.

Chitosan, which can be applied as a spray or dip directly onto fresh vegetables, or as a form of thin packaging, remains more expensive than plastic wrappings. More research is needed to improve the refining process and reduce the amount of electricity used in manufacturing it, she said, following a meeting with Spanish companies on Tuesday.

In 2012, the Americas alone generated almost 14 million tons of plastics as containers and packaging, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Only 9 percent of the total plastic waste generated in 2012 was recovered for recycling.

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