Suman Singh Gaikwad and her mission to make packaging better

Suman Singh Gaikwad, assistant professor, VCSG University of Horticulture and Forestry, Dehradun, and winner, Packaging Person of the Year, shares her journey into packaging and her research Suman Singh Gaikwad, assistant professor, VCSG University of Horticulture and Forestry, Dehradun, and winner, Packaging Person of the Year, shares her journey into packaging and her research

15 May 2024 | By PrintWeek Team

Suman Singh Gaikwad, VCSG University of Horticulture and Forestry

How would you describe the feeling of winning Packaging person of the Year award in Women to Watch Awards 2024?
Winning the Packaging Person of the Year award in the Women to Watch Awards 2024 was an exhilarating and profoundly humbling experience. 

It represents not just a personal achievement but a recognition of one's commitment to innovation, sustainability, and leadership in the packaging industry. This accolade is a testament to the hard work, creativity, and perseverance invested in pushing boundaries and making significant contributions to the field.

I would describe the feeling as a mixture of pride, gratitude, and validation for my efforts and ideas. It is a powerful motivator — inspiring not only me, but also my peers — to continue striving for excellence and to pursue advancements in sustainable packaging solutions. Moreover, it acknowledges the role of women in shaping the future of the industry, encouraging greater diversity and inclusion within the field.

This achievement sparks a sense of responsibility to mentor and uplift others, share knowledge and experiences to foster the next generation of leaders in packaging. It is a moment of celebration that highlights the importance of dedication, innovation, and the impact of leading by example in driving positive change.

Your journey in food packaging began in 2014, what are some of the changes you have observed in the past decade?
I began my journey in food packaging in 2014. I've been part of an incredibly dynamic time, marked by rapid innovation and transformative shifts across the industry. Reflecting on the last decade, several pivotal changes stand out.

There's been a profound shift towards sustainability, driving innovation in biodegradable and compostable materials. The goal is to reduce environmental impact and meet consumer demand for eco-friendly packaging solutions.

Next, the development of active and intelligent packaging solutions has been a game-changer. These technologies extend the shelf life of food products and enhance consumer engagement by providing valuable information about product freshness and quality.

Over the last decade, there has been a noticeable shift in consumer preferences towards transparency, sustainability, and convenience. This has necessitated adaptations in packaging design to meet these expectations, focusing on clear labelling, ease of use, and environmental credentials.

The regulatory landscape for food packaging has also evolved, with increased scrutiny for the safety and environmental impact of packaging materials. Strict regulations and guidelines have been implemented, shaping the development and adoption of new packaging technologies and materials.

The field has also seen significant technological breakthroughs, from nanotechnology enhancing packaging functions to digital innovations enabling personalised and interactive packaging. These advancements have opened new avenues for improving food safety, quality, and consumer experience.

Amidst these changes, there's been a consistent focus on food safety and quality. Innovations in packaging have played a crucial role in maintaining those standards, reducing the reliance on preservatives, and ensuring that food products reach consumers in the best possible condition.

Reflecting on my journey, it's clear that the food packaging industry is at the forefront of addressing some of today's most pressing challenges, from environmental sustainability to consumer health and safety. The last decade has set a solid foundation for future innovations and continued growth in this field.

What developments have been carried out in agricultural packaging, especially in the area of shelf life?
Since embarking on my journey in food packaging in 2014, I've observed significant strides in agricultural packaging aimed at prolonging shelf life. Active packaging technologies have emerged as a frontrunner, incorporating materials that interact with the produce to maintain freshness by absorbing ethylene, moisture, or oxygen.

There's been a notable advancement in Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP), which tailors the gas composition inside the package to slow down the degradation of fresh produce. Another crucial development is the shift towards biodegradable and compostable packaging materials, reflecting an industry-wide commitment to sustainability. These materials, often derived from plant-based polymers or agricultural residues, not only reduce the environmental footprint but also meet consumer demands for greener packaging solutions. 

Lastly, the application of nanotechnology in packaging has introduced materials with improved barrier properties and active functions like antimicrobial effects, further contributing to the extension of shelf life. Collectively, these innovations have revolutionised agricultural packaging by enhancing food safety, reducing waste, and addressing environmental concerns, marking a significant shift in how we approach the packaging of produce.

Your specialisation is thermal packaging. What is the progress in your work? Please share the type of applications which may benefit the end consumer?
During my postdoctoral work in South Korea, I delved into the realm of temperature-sensitive packaging, a field that plays a pivotal role in maintaining the freshness of food. This type of packaging is crucial for ensuring food safety, as it provides real-time feedback on the thermal history of the product, alerting if the food has been exposed to temperature conditions outside its safe range. 

This innovation assures consumers that the food is safe for consumption and has not been compromised by temperature abuse during its journey through the supply chain. Significant progress in this area includes the development of temperature-sensitive smart packaging for monitoring the shelf life of fresh beef, implementing temperature-controlling systems for the distribution and transportation of fresh produce, and advancing research into temperature-regulating materials for food packaging applications. 

These contributions not only enhance food safety and quality for consumers but also offer benefits like waste reduction and efficiency improvements for producers and distributors, highlighting the critical role of temperature-sensitive packaging in today’s food supply chains.

You have led innovative research into active packaging materials. What has been the response from your contemporaries and fellow researchers?
The innovative research I've led into active packaging materials, particularly focusing on antimicrobial, scavenging, and temperature-sensitive materials tailored for the unique demands of perishable goods, has garnered significant interest and positive response from contemporaries and fellow researchers. 

This pioneering territory in food packaging has sparked discussions on the potential to change how we preserve food quality and safety across the supply chain. My colleagues in the field have shown a keen interest in exploring collaborative opportunities, recognizing the implications these materials have for extending shelf life, reducing food waste, and enhancing consumer satisfaction. The enthusiasm and engagement from the academic and industry sectors underscores the relevance and urgency of advancing active packaging solutions to meet contemporary food preservation challenges.

Can you describe FSSAI's recognition in the safe packaging category? What was the project about? 
The recognition by FSSAI in the safe packaging category was a personal achievement and a testament to the power of collaboration in driving innovation within the realm of sustainable packaging. 

The project focused on developing pine needle-based smart paper packaging. It was a collaborative effort with Professor Kirtiraj Gaikwad from the Paper Technology Department at IIT Roorkee. This partnership brought together expertise from the fields of packaging technology and material science to tackle environmental issues and food preservation challenges. 

By utilizing pine needles, often an underused byproduct of forest management, our project created a biodegradable and sustainable packaging solution. This smart paper packaging, designed to be antimicrobial and temperature-sensitive, aimed at enhancing the safety and extending the shelf life of perishable goods. 

FSSAI's recognised our work under the sustainable and safe packaging category. They honoured us with the Eat Right Research Excellence Award 2022 in India.

Many manufacturers and packaging converters will be reading your interview. How is the balance between innovation and sustainability achieved? 
In a quest to balance innovation with sustainability, my work has extended beyond pine needle-based packaging to include the development of packaging materials derived from a variety of agricultural crop wastes. 

This initiative represents a significant step forward. It addresses the issue of food preservation and tackles the problem of agricultural waste management. By transforming crop residue into valuable paper packaging, we're creating a sustainable loop that benefits the environment, reduces waste, and supports the agricultural sector. For example, rice straw is a byproduct often burned. Turning it into biodegradable packaging material, showcases a practical application of sustainable innovation. 

These efforts illustrate to manufacturers and packaging converters the tangible benefits of integrating eco-friendly materials into their product lines. It's a clear demonstration that the path towards sustainability can be paved with the reimagining of resources, providing real-time solutions that have a positive impact on both the industry and the planet.

Everyone talks about eco-friendly packaging practices. In real terms what does it mean for a sustainable, food-secure future?
Eco-friendly packaging practices are essential for a sustainable, food-secure future. They involve using materials and processes that have minimal environmental impact, are biodegradable, or come from renewable sources. 

In real terms, this means reducing the carbon footprint of packaging production, decreasing waste in landfills by using compostable materials, and conserving resources by recycling. For the food industry, it translates into safer, more sustainable ways to package, transport, and store food, ensuring it reaches consumers without depleting the planet's resources. 

Ultimately, eco-friendly packaging helps to protect natural ecosystems, supports the well-being of future generations, and contributes to the global goal of achieving food security by making the entire supply chain more sustainable.

What are some obstacles which you have faced whilst implementing eco-friendly solutions?
Implementing eco-friendly packaging solutions has presented several obstacles, reflecting both technical and market challenges. 

One significant hurdle is the cost associated with developing and deploying sustainable materials. Often, eco-friendly alternatives come with a higher price tag due to the research, development, and smaller scale of production, making them less competitive with conventional, cheaper options.

Material performance is another critical challenge. Eco-friendly materials must meet or exceed the protective qualities of traditional packaging to ensure product safety and shelf life. However, achieving the same level of durability, moisture barrier, and strength can be difficult with some sustainable materials, necessitating ongoing innovation and testing.

Consumer acceptance and behaviour pose additional barriers. While there is a growing demand for sustainable products, not all consumers are willing to pay a premium for eco-friendly packaging or adjust to differences in product appearance or shelf life. Educating consumers about the benefits and necessity of sustainable packaging is crucial for broad acceptance.

Regulatory hurdles and lack of infrastructure for recycling or composting biodegradable materials also complicate the transition to eco-friendly packaging. The variability in regulations across regions can make it challenging for companies to implement a consistent approach to sustainable packaging, while inadequate facilities for processing biodegradable materials can limit the effectiveness of these solutions.

Despite these obstacles, the move towards eco-friendly packaging continues to gain momentum, driven by innovation, consumer awareness, and the urgent need to address environmental concerns.

What do you think of the government's stringent regulations and policies in terms of packaging development and sustainability? 
Stringent government regulations on packaging development and sustainability are crucial for steering the industry towards greener practices. These policies encourage innovation, ensure safety, and address environmental concerns like waste and pollution. 

While they may present initial challenges for businesses, such as compliance costs, they ultimately promote a more sustainable and competitive industry. It's important, however, that these regulations are developed with industry input to ensure they are both practical and effective. Balancing environmental ambitions with economic realities is key to achieving long-term benefits for the industry and the planet.

What is your take on sustainability and norms such as EPR and single-use plastic ban?
My perspective on sustainability, and norms such as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) and the single-use plastic ban, is that they are essential steps towards reducing environmental impact and fostering a culture of accountability and innovation within industries.

EPR, by design, places the onus on producers to manage the life-cycle of their products, including post-consumer waste. This can drive companies to design products with their end-of-life in mind, encouraging more sustainable packaging solutions and recycling initiatives. It's a powerful model for reducing waste and promoting circular economy principles, pushing companies to innovate and become more sustainable.

The single-use plastic ban targets one of the most visible and pressing environmental issues—plastic pollution. Such bans force a re-evaluation of packaging materials and encourage the adoption of alternatives that are biodegradable or easier to recycle. While the transition can be challenging for businesses and consumers alike, the long-term environmental benefits are undeniable. Reducing plastic waste can significantly mitigate harm to oceans, wildlife, and ecosystems, and promote public health.

Both of these approaches require strong policy frameworks, infrastructure, consumer participation, and industry cooperation to be effective. 

What is your view on PP, PE and the barrier film/sheet? Is there a magic substrate that could change the game? 
Polypropylene (PP) and polyethylene (PE) remain staples in the packaging industry due to their versatility, cost-effectiveness, and performance in creating effective barriers. However, their environmental footprint, particularly in terms of recyclability and biodegradability, poses significant sustainability challenges. As for barrier films and sheets — they are critical for preserving the quality and extending the shelf life of many products, especially food, but they often involve multi-layer structures that can complicate recycling processes.

The quest for a "magic substrate" that could revolutionise the packaging industry is ongoing, with the ideal material being one that offers the functional benefits of traditional plastics (such as durability, flexibility, and a strong barrier against moisture, oxygen, and pathogens) while being fully recyclable, biodegradable, or compostable. 

Several innovative materials are emerging, such as polylactic acid (PLA), a biodegradable polymer derived from renewable resources like corn starch, and polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs), produced by microbial fermentation of sugars or lipids and fully biodegradable in natural environments.

Another promising area is the development of nanocellulose films, which are derived from plant cellulose. These materials exhibit impressive barrier properties, mechanical strength, and are fully biodegradable. Additionally, the integration of nanotechnology and bio-based polymers could lead to the development of coatings or additives that enhance the functional properties of sustainable substrates, making them competitive alternatives to conventional plastics.

While no single material has yet emerged as a universal solution, the combination of bio-based polymers, nanotechnology, and innovative design principles holds the potential to transform the packaging landscape. The "magic" lies in balancing performance, cost, and environmental impact, a challenge that continues to drive research and development in the field.