College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences

Turning waste into wonder: Food packaging research holds promise for a more sustainable future


Kudzu earned the nickname “the vine that ate the South” because of its relentless growth sprawling across everything from trees to telephone poles, but the invasive plant could eventually go from a nuisance to a natural, novel, and renewable material in food packaging.

Zhaoxu Meng

Zhaoxu Meng, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, leads a new Clemson University research project that aims to find ways of making sustainable food packaging from biopolymers, such as the cellulose in kudzu.

Biopolymers can be derived from natural resources such as cereals and byproducts often considered waste, including fruit seeds, peels, vines and peanut shells.

Biopolymer packaging would be biodegradable and could come with benefits that extend beyond keeping food fresh. For example, chitosan derived from the shells of shrimp and other crustaceans could add antimicrobial properties to food packaging.

The approach holds the promise of packing a double punch for sustainability. It could reduce the amount of plastic that piles up in landfills and pollutes oceans, while taking what would usually be considered waste and making it useful.

“We want to show that food and agricultural byproducts that we normally see as waste and hard to discard could be used in food packaging, not only as normal protection but as packaging with multiple functionalities,” Meng said. “We also want to provide some momentum to show people that bio-based packaging has advantages over petroleum-based materials. We all want to aim for a better future.”

Underlying the research is that different types of biopolymers can be extracted from natural resources and combined to make nanocomposite materials that show promise as sustainable food packaging.

Meng and his team plan to use computational modeling and machine learning to better understand how various combinations of biopolymers interact and function together across different length scales starting from the molecular level. The techniques could help researchers predict which nanocomposite materials made from biopolymers would work best for food packaging.

Members of the research team examine a starch coating on paper packaging in a Poole Ag Center lab. They are (from left): Zhaoxu Meng, Hongseok Choi, Afreen Sultana, Sneh Bangar, and William Scott Whiteside.

The idea is to revolutionize how food packaging research is currently done – through trial-and-error experiments performed with physical materials, which can be time-consuming and expensive. Computational modeling and machine learning could help speed things up and reduce costs, Meng said.

But the team won’t abandon physical experiments altogether. To validate their computational findings, they still plan to test the materials in real-life experiments to see if they match up with what the models predict.

The team plans to communicate its findings to Hartsville-based Sonoco Packaging Company and to a broad range of stakeholders through peer-reviewed journals and scientific conferences.

Meng is conducting the research supported by a three-year New Innovator Award from the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research. Support also comes from Clemson’s Sonoco FRESH initiative, helping fund Meng’s collaboration with Professor Scott Whiteside and postdoctoral researcher Sneh Bangar, both in Clemson’s Department of Food, Nutrition, and Packaging Sciences.

Meng said that the findings on biopolymers could later be applied to tissue engineering through his affiliation with a Clemson-based, National Institutes of Health Center of Biomedical Research Excellence called South Carolina Translational Research Improving Musculoskeletal Health (SC-TRIMH).

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