In selecting a packaging material it is important to determine what the material should do for the product, how it will be transported, who will be unpacking the product and how. Wageningen Food & Biobased Research studies the properties of packaging materials to develop sustainable packaging with an optimal chain performance.
Knowledge of materials, insight into packaging experiences in the chain and an understanding of the packaged product are crucial in the design of packaging. Properties of packaging materials such as strength, flexibility, transparency and gas permeability determine whether packaging is suitable for the intended purpose. For example, the packaging of a television must be antistatic and have sufficient shock-absorbing capacity, while food product packaging should not affect the flavour, smell and composition of the packaged product. The level of moisture and gas permeability is vital to preserve the quality of fresh food products. Meat and fish must be packaged in airtight packaging to extend the shelf life, while vegetables and fruit need to ‘breathe’ if they are to last longer.
Research based on material knowledge
Research into the right material starts with the product that needs to be packaged. Our extensive knowledge of materials and products ensures a proper match between product and packaging. Companies regularly approach us to develop more sustainable packaging materials with properties similar to the characteristics of the existing packaging material. An example is a client who asked us to develop a disposable coffee cup from the bioplastic polylactic acid (PLA) rather than the normal polystyrene. The challenge in this research was to make the PLA cup sufficiently heat-proof and produce it on a commercial coffee cup production line. Specific knowledge about crystallisation in the process related to the associated melting temperature of the material resulted in the perfect solution.
Companies also commission us to develop packaging materials with new and/or improved properties. An example is the development of a packaging film with a coating from chitosan, a polysaccharide extracted from crustaceans. The coating has antimicrobial properties and can therefore extend the shelf life of liquid food products.
Material and application
We also use specific material knowledge to determine the functional application of packaging. With our broad expertise in the field of biodegradability we can develop materials that are broken down in various environments during the waste stage. We study and develop compostable packaging based on natural fibres, PLA, starch and polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA).
We link our detailed knowledge of material and product properties to a wide array of specialist facilities. In the conditioned material laboratory we test sample materials for properties such as strength, stiffness, heat resistance and/or impact resistance. In addition, the lab features analysis equipment for gas and moisture transmission and tear strength, as well as equipment that measures the transparency of packaging. The data obtained with these analyses is useful for designing packaging for fresh products once the product requirements have been determined. These requirements are determined in 60 configurable storage spaces where we simulate the packaging. Finally, we have available high-cost and more generic testing and analysis equipment such as NMR.