Hotchkiss notes, however, that not all gee-whiz agents on films and wrappers are so easily contained. The "holy grail" of his research, he explains, is antimicrobial packaging: a material that attacks microorganisms on fresh produce. Finding such a substance — one that kills organisms, causes no harm to the food, proves cost-effective, and poses low legal and health risks — has so far stumped not just his team, but the whole packaging vanguard.
Much of the considerable interest in smart and active packaging has to do with a cultural shift toward fresh foods (especially produce) and away from canned or prepackaged fare. And perhaps, too, modern consumers are enthralled by material products that "talk back" — by crates that probe the environment and communicate what they've learned, or plastics sophisticated enough to deliver customers an almost personalized experience.
This article arises from Future Tense, a joint partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University.