Challenges of Using Nanomaterials in Packaging

Challenges of Using Nanomaterials in Packaging

By Marija Jovic

Due to Nanomaterials’ range of advanced properties, they are being incorporated by the packaging industry at an increased rate. Benefits of using nanomaterials include their ability to improve barrier properties, reduce overall packaging, make active and interactive packaging materials, as well as have antimicrobial properties, repair package when damaged, and release substances that can extend the life of the food in the package.

However, despite this impressive potential for nanotechnology applications in packaging, they have not become mainstream yet. The reasons behind this lie in the consumer wariness, as well as environmental and regulatory concerns and high development and manufacturing costs.

Consumer Safety and Regulation in Different Countries

The main concern regarding the use of nanomaterials is in terms of consumer safety. Studies have shown the possibility of the migration of nanomaterials from packaging into food, with the rate of migration potentially associated with the percentage of nanomaterial present in the packaging material.

Regulation policies are different in different countries, and are still in development, which adds to the uncertainty on what the future holds. In the USA, the FDA recommends a safety assessment of the product involving nanotechnology prior to its use, and approval on a case-by-case basis.  Two points in particular should be considered in evaluation of the new products: if the material or end product has at least one dimension in the nanoscale range (approximately 1 nm to 100 nm) and if it displays properties attributable to its dimension(s), for the range up to one micrometer.

In Europe, the regulation states that the use of nanoparticles is prohibited in general unless they are specifically authorized in their nano form, and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) recommends that nanomaterial risk assessment has to be performed on a case-by-case basis, with just few exemptions. EFSA also proposes that in the cases where there are environmental or health or safety concerns, the 50% nanoparticle threshold should be lowered to 10% only, which relates to food and medical related applications.

Canada evaluates the potential risks and benefits of nanomaterials in packaging through existing legislative and regulatory frameworks. Health Canada, as the Agency in charge of this topic, recommended that manufacturers of health and food products containing nanomaterials have a meeting with the regulatory authorities prior to submitting the product for approval in order to discuss the product’s safety.

Environmental and Other Concerns

Another point worth mentioning is the environmental impact. Recently, the use of biopolymers is gaining more and more momentum, due to its biodegradability. The drawback of such polymers (like  polylactic acid, starch, cellulose, chitosan) is in their mechanical properties, that can be improved using nanomaterials as a filler. Unfortunately, this might impact the biodegradability of the composite material. Not enough studies have been made on the topic, and with contradictory results as well, however, from the ones conducted so far, it seems that slower and reduced biodegradability has been noticed more often than an improved one.

Defined  test  methodologies that would enable the risk assessment of nanotechnology products are still not available which is making the assessment both difficult and  uncertain.  The present state of knowledge still has many gaps which prevents from setting what the level of safety should be. On top of that, there is the need for further migration, toxicological and other studies (like biodegradability) in order to set the right standards.

Finally, careful evaluation of both advantages and disadvantages of using nanomaterials in packaging is needed in order to balance potential benefits and drawbacks on human health and the environment, as well as the cost-effectiveness of the solution.

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