Plastic fantastic beer bottles

The latest, greatest advances in food packaging technology, brought to you by the good folks at Nano Inc.

By Andrew Leonard
Published December 14, 2006 7:10PM (EST)

The plastic beer bottle, says nanotechnology analyst Peter Conley, has long been the Holy Grail of the global beer industry. A switch from glass and aluminum to plastic would dramatically cut costs for the big players. The problem: plastic bottles have a bad habit of letting oxgyen molecules get through when sitting on the shelf. This is bad for beer. Very, very bad.

Enter AMCOL, the largest producer of kitty litter in the world. AMCOL has devised a "nanocomposite" that solves the problem, keeping oxygen molecules out and carbon dioxide molecules in. So be prepared, a new era of plastic beer bottles is upon us.

Whether this is progress or not depends on a complex mix of aesthetics, logistics, and perspectives on the proper role of technology in our lives. If you're Budweiser or Coors, anything that allows you to cut costs while maintaining the same horse-piss taste is considered progress. If you happen to savor the feel of an ice-cold glass bottle gripped firmly in your hand on a hot summer day, you might think otherwise. And if you're worried that the wholesale application of nanotechnological science to food product packaging raises a host of potential safety questions that will make previous concerns over genetically modified crops seem like preschooler whining, well, maybe you should just give up beer altogether and stick to fresh wheat-grass juice.

But whatever you think, don't imagine you can stop it. Plastic corks in wine bottles are already standard. Plastic beer bottles will not be denied.

And that's just the beginning. "Smart" food packaging is coming, if one is to believe the predictions of those who are tracking nanotechnologically-driven innovations in the food industry. We're talking plastic films that can detect when food is spoiling and nano-sized sensors designed to detect food pathogens. Worried about e-coli on your lettuce? NanoShield plastic wrap will protect you!

My mother taught me that if you want to know whether leftovers stored in the fridge have spoiled or not, the surefire test is to open up the container and give it a sniff. If it smells bad, throw it out, if not, you can eat it.

Seems simple enough. But what if you've got a bad cold and are stuffed up? And what does e coli smell like, exactly? And what if we just don't trust the result of our own senses, and precipitously dump a half-drunk quart of milk down the drain because we're afraid it might have gone sour? Wouldn't it be great not to have to shoulder our own responsibility for vetting what we eat and drink, and instead rely on sub-microscopic helpers to do the work for us?

But who will vet the nanobots? The paradox inherent in relying on new technology to protect us from food pathogens is that very little research is being done to determine whether the nanoparticles themselves are safe to ingest. How ironic -- to be poisoned by anti-microbial technology. And how potentially troubling -- if critics like food investigative reporter extraordinaire Michael Pollan are correct, the industrialization of food production is itself contributing to outbreaks of e coli contamination and mad cow disease and the like. Instead of devising new nanomaterials to plug the dike, shouldn't we just head over to the farmer's market and buy our broccoli from someone we can look in the eye?

Don't get me wrong -- I love new technology, and I would be delighted to own Tupperware containers that start pulsing in bizarre colors when they detect mold growing inside their plastic perimeter. But nanobots that protect us from the consequences of our own mistakes seem more like a bandaid, than a solution.

But maybe I'm just in a bad mood because I don't like the thought of drinking my beer out of a plastic bottle.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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