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Scientists are tackling new ways to reduce food waste and keep your produce fresh. 

Elisabeth Sherman
August 22, 2017

This grocery store conundrum will probably be familiar to most people: You’re pushing your cart through the aisles and stop at the produce section, considering which vegetables to buy for the week. Maybe you skip buying avocados and lettuce altogether because you know if you forget to use them, in a couple days they’ll go bad. But science may have an answer to that frustrating scenario which could buy your fruits and veggies a little more time. By slowing down the ripening process using clay-based packaging, it could be possible to extend the shelf-life of your produce.

A recent report put out by the American Chemical Society explains that the new food packaging is coated with “clay nanotubes packed with antibacterial essential oil,” which prevents “over-ripening and microbial growth.”

The scientists behind the invention presented their findings at the 254th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (where a smart label that can detect when food has gone bad was also introduced yesterday). While there is already some packaging that protects produce from drying out, scientists have struggled to develop packaging that also combats contamination by bacteria and that doesn’t allow oxygen and water vapor to escape. They also want to prevent the build up of ethylene, a compound naturally released by fruits and vegetables that speeds up the ripening process. In regular packing, ethylene gets trapped, causing the produce to rot.

Dr. Hayriye Üna of Sabanci University in Turkey led the team of scientists that created the new packaging. They used a clay-based material that contains “halloysite nanotubes," hollow cylinders that “prevent oxygen from entering the film, and prevent water vapor and other gases from escaping.” On top of that, the nanotubes are filled with antibacterial oil found in thyme and oregano, and they also absorb ethylene, which slows down the process that causes produce to over-ripen.

To test out how well their new packaging works, they wrapped tomatoes, bananas, and chicken in it. After ten days, the tomatoes were better preserved than those that weren’t stored in the packaging. After six days, the bananas were still firm and bright yellow, and after 25 hours, the chicken showed less bacterial growth.

The scientists aren’t ready to introduce their product to the commercial market just yet (it still needs to be tested to ensure that it’s non-toxic), but any plan to extend the shelf-life of produce so that it stops going to waste sounds like a practical tool for the future that just about everyone could use.