Natural Packaging Materials

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World over, there has been growing concern about environmental degradation caused by synthetic packaging material. These synthetic packaging materials, which is convenient to use, takes hundreds of years to break down. And when they break down, they release poisonous materials into the water and soil. They can also choke the animals on land and in the sea, who may eat these bags inadvertently.

It is because of this adverse impact on the environment that countries and environment- conscious people across the world are looking for environment friendly and bio-degradable packaging materials.

Commonly used natural packaging materials

Some commonly used packaging materials are:

  • Textiles -- Textile containers have poor gas and moisture barrier properties and have a poorer appearance than plastics. Woven jute sacks, which are chemically treated to prevent rotting and to reduce their flammability, are non-slip, have a high tear resistance, and good durability. They are used to transport a wide variety of bulk foods including grain, flour, sugar and salt.
  • Cotton -- Cotton in the form of Calico is usually a closely woven, strong, plain, cotton fabric which is inexpensive and is satisfactory as a wrapper for flour, grains, legumes, coffee beans and powdered or granulated sugar. It can be re-used as many times as the material withstands washing and is easily marked to indicate the contents of the bag.
  • Muslin and Cheesecloth -- Muslin and cheesecloth are open-mesh, light fabrics used to wrap soft foods, which they help hold together in the desired shape. Processed meats, smoked shoulders of ham, etc, are tightly wrapped in cheesecloth, before being packaged into cellophane, wax paper etc. Both muslin bags and cheesecloth wrappers have to be cut open and can seldom be re-used. It is a very cheap material, made in huge quantities because of its multiple applications, but it gives very little protection to food, and simply holds it together.
  • Kenaf -- The kenaf plant grows in Central Asia, India, Africa and Cuba. It is chiefly used for making ropes and string but can be spun into a yarn which is fine enough to make a coarse canvas. In India, it is known as ambari or deccan hemp and in Africa, lipatam or gombo.
  • Sisal -- Sisal is a fibre that comes from the agave family of plants. Sisal is resistant to salt water and therefore makes an ideal natural material from which to make rope. The nets in which hard fruits are transported are often hand-made from vegetable fibre.
  • Wood -- Wooden shipping containers have traditionally been used for a wide range of solid and liquid foods including fruits, vegetables, tea and beer. Wood offers good mechanical protection, good stacking characteristics and a high weight-to-strength ratio. However, plastic containers have a lower cost and have largely replaced wood in many applications. The use of wood continues for some wines and spirits because the transfer of flavour compounds from the wooden barrels improves the quality of the product. Wooden tea chests are produced more cheaply than other containers in tea-producing countries and are still widely used. Wooden crates are imported for transporting fresh fruit and vegetables, fish etc. They are used to hold foods together and protect them from crushing, but otherwise offer little protection.
  • Traditional packaging materials -- Traditional packaging materials are generally used to hold foods but they offer little in the way of barrier properties needed for a long shelf life. The exception is glazed pottery, which although heavy, has excellent properties.
  • Leaves --Banana or plantain leaves are the most common and widespread leaves used for wrapping foods, such as certain kinds of cheese and confectionery (guava cheese). Cornhusk is used to wrap corn paste or block brown sugar, and cooked foods of all sorts are wrapped into leaves. beetlenut leaves are used for wrapping spices (India), they are an excellent solution for products that are quickly consumed, as they are cheap and readily available.
  • Vegetable fibres -- Vegetable fibres are natural raw materials and are converted into fibres to produce the yarn, string or cord for packaging materials. Such materials, although categorised by the nature of the constituent fibre, have certain common characteristics. They are very flexible, to some extent resistant to tearing and permeable to water and water vapour. Their lightweight is an advantage in handling and transport. The rough surface makes stacking easier in comparison to man-made fibre sacks, which slide due to their smooth surface. Another difference with man-made fibres is that the natural raw materials are bio-degradable when left in their pure state. However, they rot when moist limiting the number of times that they can be re-used.
  • Bamboo and rattan are widely used materials for basket making. Bamboo pots, cut out of the bamboo stem are also found.
  • Coconut palm -- Green coconut palm and papyrus leaves are frequently woven into bags or baskets, which are used for carrying meat and vegetables in many parts of the world. Palyra palm leaves are used to weave boxes in which items such as cooked foods are transported.
  • Treated skins --Treated Skins such as Leather have been used for many centuries as a non-breakable container or bottle. Water and wine are frequently stored and transported in leather containers (camel, pig and kid goat hides). Manioc flour and solidified sugar are also packed in leather cases and pouches.
  • Earthenware -- Earthenware is used worldwide for storage of liquids and solid foods such as curd, yoghurt, beer, dried food, honey, etc. Corks, wooden lids, leaves, wax, plastic sheets, or combinations of these are used to seal the pots. If well sealed, it is a gas, moisture and lightproof container.
    Unglazed earthenware pots

Unglazed earthenware is porous and is very suitable for products that need cooling e.g. curd. Glazed pots are better for storing liquids e.g. oils, wine, as they are moisture proof and airtight, if properly sealed. All are lightproof and if clean, restrict the entry and growth of micro-organisms, insects and rodents. One should ensure that the glazing of the earthenware does not contain lead. Most traditionally glazed pots do have lead glazings which, although they are not really harmful for serving coffee or soup, should not be used for acid drinks and other products which are to be stored for a long time.

  • Metal -- Metal cans have a number of advantages over other types of container, including the following:
  1. They provide total protection of the contents.
  2. They are convenient for ambient storage and presentation.
  3. They are tamperproof.

However, the high cost of metal and the high manufacturing costs make cans expensive. They are heavier than other materials, except glass, and therefore have higher transport costs.

  • Glass --Glass containers have the following advantages.
  1. They are impervious to moisture, gases, odours and micro-organisms.
  2. They are inert and do not react with or migrate into food products.
  3. They are suitable for heat processing when hermetically sealed.
  4. They are re-useable and recyclable.
  5. They are resealable.
  6. They are transparent to display the contents.
  7. They are rigid, to allow stacking without container damage.

The disadvantages of glass include:

  1. Higher weight which incurs higher transport costs than other types of packaging.
  2. Lower resistance than other materials to fractures, scratches and thermal shock.
  3. More variable dimensions than metal or plastic containers.
  4. Potentially serious hazards from glass splinters or fragments in foods.

Reference

  • Packaging Materials for Food

See Also