Don’t let Nano become a No No

The advantages of nanotechnology are clear and tested, tried and used in many industries. The same technology has not yet brought its benefits to the packaging industry. We have been talking about it for many years now. The new technology was supposed to bring us lighter and stronger packaging with better barriers. Nothing much has happened outside the closed doors of the R&D departments. Price is one item holding back the development but there are other obstacles.  Information is another one, there is an imperative need for a well thought through campaign aiming at informing people about the nature of nanotechnology. People are apparently concerned and worried. College Hill recently conducted a survey involving 1000 people in the UK and the result is alarming.

On a direct question

  • more than 90% are confused or concerned about whether they would buy food containing manufactured nanoparticles.
  • 38% of householders would be unlikely to buy foods containing nanoparticles
  • more than half (52%) were unsure about the advantages or risks of such technology in the food and drink industry.
  • less than half (44%) of the UK consumers were able to define the meaning of nanotechnology as ‘a technology that involves using very small particles’.

If this result is somewhat in line with other European markets something has got to be done. The situation is urgent in the light of a new EU rule making it mandatory to label all use of nanomaterials in product and packaigng. This could potentially put people off from buying “nano” labelled products.

I am still impressed by the fact that 56% of the respondent apparently knew that nanotechnology is ‘a technology that involves using very small particles’…

When will “nano” take off?

That is a big question as we keep talking about all the benefits that we will achieve when we get there. Why can’t we, packaging people, use nanotechnology when everybody else seems to do just that? We also want the stronger and thinner, therefore lighter, materials. We want to improve shelf life and enjoy the lower package costs.

Nanotechnology is used in medical drug delivery, wrinkle free textiles and even in cosmetics for sunscreen. Just to mention a few examples. There are so many potential applications in the packaging sphere. With nanotechnology we could, for example, have better barriers for the benefit of the PET bottle and barrier films. The PET bottle could qualify for beer, delivering the barriers and give the consumer the sturdy glass feel.

Within packaging, nanotechnology is today used for freshness indicators, giving the status of meat and poultry. Japan is leading that development but it seems that cost is an issue that holds back also the nano development. The recession has probably held back the progress with tighter budgets and the general caution.

I do think that with, hopefully, better times ahead that the use of nanotechnology will develop also in the packaging industry. Given the benefits and successful implementation in other industries it will be a question of time.

The matter has to be treated carefully though. As with all new technologies that are introduced into everyday life, health and safety concerns will arise.

Food producers are exploring the possibilities and have found a way of using nanotechnology to make low-fat or fat-free foods just as appetising and satisfying as their full-fat fellows. But the mistrust that hit GM food must be avoided and now is the time to do something about that. I think the industry should be more communicative and talk about the potentials for all involved. The risk to end up in another “Frankenstein Food” debate is definitely there.