5 December 2007

Biodegradable packaging may not be all it’s cracked up to be, according to world food packaging expert, Dr Gordon L Robertson, who is also an adjunct professor at The University of Queensland.

Professor Robertson, author of a definitive textbook on food packaging entitled Food Packaging Principles and Practice, said few people working in the food and packaging industries had formal education in the area with the result that decisions were often based on intuition and/or trial and error.

He warned against being swept up in a rush to adopt new bio-based polymers such as PLA and PHA for food packaging without thoroughly investigating properties such as shelf life and biodegradability under normal conditions.

“It’s no use having a biodegradable PLA water bottle for example that is going to start leaking its contents after a few weeks, which is what is happening right now to such bottles in New Zealand and the USA,” Professor Robertson said.

“These products only break down quickly under certain conditions as well. For example, a biodegradable PLA water bottle may take three to five years at 25°C to completely disintegrate and more than two months at 60°C.”

Professor Robertson said food packaging had become a kind of “poster boy” for environmental activism as it was the most “visible sign of waste” even though the environmental impacts from packaging were quite small and packaging actually prevented waste.

“A technical understanding of the functions and impacts of food packaging must be developed if we are to proceed with the sensible introduction of bio-based packaging,” he said.

UQ School of Land and Food students benefit from Professor Robertson’s expertise through lectures as part of his role as an adjunct professor at UQ. He also chairs the advisory committee of the UQ Centre for Nutrition and Food Sciences.

Retiring UQ Vice-Chancellor, Professor John Hay, AC, introduced the adjunct professorship scheme in 1996 to foster a more active interchange of ideas and increased cooperation between the University and the professions, industry and the wider community.

There are now 181 adjunct professors at UQ, in addition to 103 adjunct readers or associate professors, 95 adjunct senior lecturers and 76 adjunct lecturers, across all seven faculties as well as in centres and research institutes.

Professor Robertson was the Foundation Professor of Packaging Technology at Massey University where he taught food packaging courses for 21 years.

He then spent 11 years with Tetra Pak in Asia as Vice President for Environmental Affairs and now runs his own food packaging consultancy, Food• Packaging•Environment.

He is invited to edit books and deliver workshops and conference presentations throughout the world, recently returning from the 5th International Packaging Congress in Turkey and shortly to present at the International Association of Packaging Research Institutes biennial conference in Thailand.

This year, he has run his two-day workshop on plastics packaging and shelf life in Brisbane, Melbourne, Toronto, Auckland, Izmir and Singapore, and next year, will offer it in Bangkok, England, South Africa and the USA, in addition to in-house sessions for several multinational companies.

His chapter on bio-based food packaging will appear in the book Environmentally-Compatible Food Packaging next year, followed by a chapter on sustainable food packaging in the Handbook of Waste Management and Co-Product Recovery in Food Processing. In addition, he is editing a book on food packaging and shelf life, as well as another, Using Food Science and Technology to Improve Nutrition and Promote National Development: Selected Case Studies, for the International Union of Food Science & Technology (IUFoST) of which he is one of only eight Australian Fellows.

Media inquiries: Dr Gordon Robertson (07 5510 9518) or www.gordonlrobertson.com or Shirley Glaister at UQ Communications (07 3365 1931).