By Tong Wang
Shipping fresh produce across the country is commonplace these days and needs to happen in short time frames to ensure food quality and safety. In many instances, corrugated paperboard boxes are used to package fresh vegetables and poultry with ice for transportation, but they are not recyclable due to the package’s paraffin wax coating. The paraffin wax is important for water repellency and for strengthening the paperboard during shipping, but it dooms the package for the landfill because paraffin does not break down during the recycling process. The pile up is high; annually, about 3 billion pounds of paraffin-coated boxes are landfilled (about 40% of the box weight can be paraffin), creating a need for more sustainable food packaging options.
A greener solution is growing in soybean fields across the state and beyond. University of Tennessee researchers Professor Tong Wang and Research Assistant Professor Tao Fei in the Department of Food Science received a new U.S. patent for developing a biobased wax made from soybean oil that is more sustainable than paraffin and microcrystalline waxes. The food and packaging industry can use this soybean oil-based coating in corrugated paper and paperboard packaging, offering consumers a recyclable package that is more environment-friendly. Paraffin and microcrystalline wax is a $1.4 billion market in the U.S. and $3.2 billion globally with projected growth rate of 4% from 2017-2024. This creates a value-added profitable opportunity for the soybean industry while also decreasing landfill waste. “The use of domestic soybeans to produce biobased chemicals as petroleum alternatives will benefit the U.S. soybean farmers and consumers who are conscientious of the environment and sustainability,” says Professor Wang.
The researchers, formerly with Iowa State University’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, developed this soybean oil-based coating while conducting research at ISU with funding from the United Soybean Board.
Professors Wang and Fei, along with PhD student Francisco Leyva Gutierrez, also are working on development of high-oleic soybean oil-based waxes for coating fresh produce that will improve food quality and reduce spoilage during postharvest handling and storage. These soybean oil-based renewable coatings will benefit U.S. and Tennessee soybean farmers and enhance environmental sustainability by reducing the quantity of non-recyclable/non-repulpable fibers from paraffin treatment, and will reduce food quantity and quality loss.