NYSP2I asked students to reduce food spoilage by rethinking packaging—here’s what happened

What you need to know:

  • A new summer-long program gave students from across the Empire State the opportunity to conduct original academic research projects alongside university faculty. The Student and Faculty Research Program was launched by the New York State Pollution Prevention Institute (NYSP2I) at RIT’s Golisano Institute for Sustainability (GIS).
  • The inaugural program 2023 challenged four student-led teams to explore how current packaging technologies could be applied to extend the life of food products to avoid spoilage and offset food waste, a growing problem.  
  • Four research projects were completed by student-led teams from Binghamton University, Clarkson University, Cornell University, and Rochester Institute of Technology, all NYSP2I partner universities.
  • The program culminated in a symposium hosted at Binghamton. Each team gave a formal academic presentation of the results of their work, fielded questions from a live audience, and participated in a poster session.
  • Plans are in place for next year’s program, which will task students with designing and completing a research project that furthers the use of “green” chemistry, a sustainability-centered approach to chemistry and one of NYSP2I’s priority focus areas
“Enlightening.” “Rigorous.” “Inspiring.” “Interdisciplinary.”

That’s how Binghamton University students Liam Charles, Ryan Brannigan, Emily Bridgeford, and Justin Havemeyer described their experience of participating in the inaugural Student and Faculty Research Program—“Keep It Fresh!”—in a single word. They joined three other teams from Clarkson University, Cornell University, and Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) to present the results of their summer-long research project at a symposium on Binghamton’s campus on Friday, September 29, 2023.

The New York State Pollution Prevention Institute (NYSP2I) launched the program in early 2023, when it sent a request for proposals (RFP) to the five universities that make up the institute. The RFP challenged enrolled graduate and undergraduate students to propose research focusing on a sometimes overlooked strategy for offsetting food waste: packaging. 

“Improved packaging has an important role to play in turning the tide on wasted food [...].”

“Improved packaging has an important role to play in turning the tide on wasted food, a complex problem that affects climate, the economy, and society,” said Melissa Hall, who manages NYSP2I's food waste diversion program. “Through this program, we wanted to grow interest and experience in sustainability with students of different disciplines while challenging them to work on the same problem: reducing food waste through packaging.”

Hall designed and organized the program with Kimberly Burley, a senior program manager at NYSP2I.

“The program is a way to support beneficial research within critical areas NYSP2I is working in while also engaging our partner universities in a student-centered way,” Burley commented. “It is really exciting to learn from students.”

First summer-long challenge

“I definitely realized that the things you learn in class are not what you will find out in research,” said Kassidy Burrows, a packaging-science undergrad on the RIT team. “So I thought it was very interesting going from a textbook to an actual experiment and how different it is.”

“I thought it was very interesting going from a textbook to an actual experiment.”
A group photo of attendees at "Keep It Fresh!" on September 29, 2023, at Binghamton University

(Photo credit: Joy Zeng)

Burley and Hall created the initiative to foster the creative thinking, problem-solving, and collaboration that is fundamental to sustainability. By engaging university students in this way, the program intends to support the institute’s wider efforts to solve complex sustainability problems in New York State. 

“It was really great working with Ph.D. students,” said Megan Jen, an undergraduate summer scholar in Cornell’s food science program. She worked alongside Sidney Madsen, who studies global development, and Christelle Reppen, who studies food science, as part of the Cornell team. 

“I didn’t study anything related to [food packaging] before starting this project. I studied food security and sustainable agriculture in Malawi,” Madsen noted about how the program broadened the horizon of her research. “There are a lot of really kind, generous people out there who care about the impact of food waste and food packaging. […] They really motivated me to think about the problem differently.”

For Oluwatosin Popoola, the doctoral student in chemistry who led the Clarkson team, the program helped him connect his research to the impacts of food loss at the global scale. “It helped me realize the extent of food that is getting wasted,” Popoola said. “I’m from Africa and I can tell you that a lot of children go to bed without eating daily, you know. A lot of people die of hunger.”

Teams of both undergraduate and graduate students from NYSP2I’s partner universities were eligible to participate. Each team was led by a faculty principal investigator, who advised and supported the students. Once a proposal was accepted, the team was awarded funding via a cost-reimbursement subcontract to offset expenses, such as stipends for the students or travel within New York State. Funding was provided by New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation. 

Quick primer: Food waste

Uneaten food that ends up in a landfill—about 40 percent of all food made in the United States—emits methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Plus, the vast amounts of water, energy, land, labor, and other resources used to grow and produce food are spent fruitlessly when it goes to waste. What’s more, the tons of edible food that get thrown out each year can be used to address food insecurity in communities.

But there is good news when it comes to food waste: It’s a problem that can be solved today using technologies and strategies that are already available.

Learn more about businesses and organizations working to find circular-economy solutions to divert wasted food:

Explore NYSP2I’s food waste diversion resources and tools:

Explore more food waste resources >

Learn more about GIS’s research to find sustainable pathways for food waste:

Weighing the tradeoffs

“A common misconception is that ‘sustainable’ and ‘environmental’ are the same, which is not the case. A better way of thinking about it sustainability is as a three-legged stool,” Hall explained. “It is the balance of the environmental, the economic, and the social; without those, the stool won’t stand.”

For the program’s inaugural year, students were asked to propose research projects that leaned into the concept of the three-legged stool with respect to packaging and food spoilage. They could research and review existing packaging options on the market or consider entirely new innovations, evaluating the benefits and barriers such new designs would present to different stakeholders. Teams were encouraged to explore packaging applications at any point across the food supply chain, whether on a farm, a processing facility, a shipping container, or a grocery store shelf.

Student researchers from Cornell University

Cornell: Active packaging

The team from Cornell University (pictured left to right): Dr. Julie Goddard, Sidney Madsen, Megan Jen, and Christelle Reppen (Photo credit: Joy Zeng) 

Cornell’s Jen, Madsen, and Reppen considered “active” packaging. Curcumin—a chemical derived from turmeric root—was incorporated into polymer films to exploit its antimicrobial properties. The testing showed that the application is technically feasible.

Guided by faculty advisors Dr. Julie Goddard, of Cornell’s food science department, and Dr. Lori Leonard, from its global development department, the student researchers also wanted to determine if active packaging is likely to be adopted. To do this, they conducted interviews with stakeholders from across the food supply chain. They found a number of reasons against adoption, ranging from reluctance among manufacturers to concerns among food recyclers about the difficulty of removing films from spoiled products. However, organizations that distribute edible food to people who need it were positive about the innovation.

By the end of the study, the Cornell team had gained a better understanding of important tradeoffs that active packaging brought to light: human health versus environmental health, the benefits of extending the shelf-life of food versus making it easier to recycle.

“We get educated in school about a lot of things like math or biology, but we never have food science class.”

“It’s very hard for companies to do [consumer education]. We get educated in school about a lot of things like math or biology, but we never have food science class,” observed Reppen.

Student researchers from Clarkson University

Clarkson: Intelligent, bio-based packaging

The team from Clarkson University (pictured left to right): Oluwatosin Popoola, Dr. Silvana Andreescu, and Jehad Abdelnabi (not pictured: Ivy Dong and Aqsa Khan) (Photo credit: Joy Zeng) 

“A good packaging material can also be intelligent enough to indicate a level of freshness, which can help people make decisions whether to consume the food or trash it, if it’s bad,” said Popoola to explain the Clarkson team’s research. He worked alongside Aqsa Khan, a materials science graduate student, and Ivy Dong, an undergraduate in biomolecular science. They were advised by Dr. Silvana Andreescu, a professor of bioanalytical chemistry.

The team sought ways a package could help consumers make more accurate, informed decisions about whether food is safe to eat. They 3D-printed a sustainable “hydrogel” packaging material made from organic materials like alginate—a natural polymer obtained from seaweed—and gelatin. Not only does the new material avoid petroleum-based plastics, but it includes a chemical sensor that can detect shifts in pH levels caused by bacteria that spoil perishable products like meat and fish.

The team successfully validated a packaging solution that is durable yet flexible, biodegradable, and made from readily available materials. The pH sensor showed promise as a reliable color-based indicator that consumers could easily interpret to tell if the food inside the package was no longer edible.   

“You can’t talk about sustainability without talking about measuring waste generation.”

“You can’t talk about sustainability without talking about measuring waste generation,” Popoola pointed out to show explain how advance technologies can support reducing food waste. “In 3D printing, you only need to put in the exact material you need. […] Other manufacturing techniques generate much more waste. ” 

Student researchers from Rochester Institute of Technology

RIT: Essential oils for longer-lasting tomatoes

The team from Rochester Institute of Technology (pictured left to right): Daniel Pinigin, Kassidy Burrows, and Baylee West (not pictured: Dr. Kyle Dunno) (Photo credit: Joy Zeng) 

Most people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about packaging. But that’s not the case for RIT’s Burrows, Daniel Pinigin, and Baylee West, who are all earning degrees in packaging science. They worked under Kyle Dunno, an assistant professor in RIT’s department of packaging and graphic media science.

“If you’re a company and you have a product, you’re going to need a package.”

“If you’re a company and you have a product, you’re going to need a package,” stressed Pinigin.

The RIT team’s project asked if essential oils from thyme can extend the shelf life of tomatoes, one of New York State’s top-ten cash crops. The study compared the produce protected with the oils under different conditions. The results showed that thyme essential oil did indeed show promise as a method for slowing spoilage when applied in concentrations of 2.5 and 5 percent.

The RIT students also considered how consumers would tolerate the inevitable changes to color, firmness, and weight, as well as any other overall sensory differences caused. “At the end of the day, research and sustainability doesn’t matter if the consumer doesn’t want to buy the product inside the package,” said West.  

“It’s also important to look at it from the manufacturing side,” noted Pinigin. “Maybe the consumer loves the packaging and they would happily buy it. Then you go to manufacturer and you say, ‘Hey, we’d like to produce this,’ and they say, ‘This is impossible to make.’”

Student researchers from Binghamton University

Binghamton: Use of PFAS in takeout containers

The team from Binghamton University (pictured left to right): Emily Bridgeford, Justin Havemeyer, Ryan Brannigan, and Liam Charles (Photo credit: Joy Zeng) 

The Binghamton team—Charles, a graduate student, and undergrads Brannigan, Bridgeford, and Havemeyer—was advised by Dr. Nirav Patel, a lecturer in environmental studies. They investigated the use of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in disposable containers for takeout food. The U.S. Food and Drug Agency links exposure to some types of PFAS with serious human health effects. 

“People’s perceptions on food have more impact than we thought.”

“People’s perceptions on food have more impact than we thought,” said Brannigan during the team’s twenty-minute presentation at the ‘Keep It Fresh!’ symposium.

Using a research methodology known as citizen science, they concluded that consumers can force changes up the supply chain. A survey of college students included in their study found that 70 percent would prefer to be able to choose what type of containers restaurants use—sustainable and reusable versus disposable, possibly PFAS-containing—rather than be given only one type.

“We wanted to know about consumers specifically in our region. Where are they going? What are they buying? There’s a ton of valuable information that can be gathered from actual consumer input because a lot of the things we’re researching are going to affect them more than anyone else,” explained Charles.

“The other thing that is important with this type of research is the ability to educate the public and have the public be willing to learn more about a topic,” added Bridgeford about involving community feedback and perspectives—the goal of citizen science—in research.    

A solid foundation

According to Hall, the initial success of the program speaks to NYSP2I’s mission of empowering the next generation of leaders in sustainability research.

The program’s first cohort represented a diverse group of students from all over. For many, it was a chance to experience a rigorous research project firsthand. It sparked an interest for some in pursuing scientific research as part of their careers, while others took away a deeper appreciation of sustainability—what it looks like and what it takes to get there.

“I’ve always been interested in sustainability, but working on this research project really confirmed that interest,” said RIT’s West.

Importantly, the students valued the connections they formed with each other through the projects. Many commented on how surprising it was to see so many different approaches to solving a single problem. 

University students engaging in a discussion at academic event

Students discuss their research at a poster session with Sarah Briggs, the senior research specialist in green chemistry at NYSP2I who will be leading the 2024 program. (Photo credit: Joy Zeng) 

 “In addition to the students’ own personal growth, the outcomes of their projects directly contribute towards the important body of knowledge to minimize wasted food. They also identified future work to be carried out based on their findings,” she said. “The effort they put in goes way beyond this symposium. I am excited to see where it all leads.”

Next year, the program and symposium event will invite students to devise research projects that apply green chemistry to a sustainability solution. “I’m looking forward to working with passionate students and seeing how young minds apply the principles of green chemistry to some of the pressing chemical issues in our society,” observed Sarah Briggs, a senior research specialist in green chemistry at NYSP2I who will be leading the 2024 program.

More details about next year’s program will be available on the NYSP2I website. 

Funding provided by the Environmental Protection Fund as administered by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Any opinions, findings, and/or interpretations of data contained herein are the responsibility of Rochester Institute of Technology and its New York State Pollution Prevention Institute and do not necessarily represent the opinions, interpretations or policy of the State.


Sustainability in Practice


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About the authors

The New York State Pollution Prevention Institute (NYSP2I) works with government programs and Empire State businesses, communities, and nonprofits to give them the practical resources, tools, and solutions needed to realize the benefits of sustainability for our economy, environment, and our society as a whole. 

Senior Writer and Content Strategist

Golisano Institute for Sustainability 
Rochester Institute of Technology 

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