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The total package

Nathalie Gontard is all wrapped up in the future of packaging. Concerned with the amount of plastic waste accumulating in oceans and on land, she invented innovative biodegradable packaging materials and is looking for ways to anticipate the impacts it will have over its lifecycle. Inspired by techniques discovered over the course of her travels, Gontard has always been looking far afield and into the future.

Nathalie Gontard, research director in the Agropolymer Engineering and Emerging Technologies Unit at INRA Montpellier, receives the 2017 Scientific Breakthrough Award. © NICOLAS Bertrand
By Pascale Mollier, translated by Daniel McKinnon
Updated on 03/08/2018
Published on 11/20/2017

“Why packaging? I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps because it was uncharted territory in the 1990s.” With her red bag and cycling helmet in hand, the youthful Gontard is not one given to much self-reflection. “After getting my associate’s degree, I was focused on two things: packaging and developing countries. Thirty years later and much to my delight, I’ve been able to bring together an international research community to address the issue of plastic packaging and waste”. In packaging as in life, Gontard’s outlook is very broad. In the 1970s, there was a huge appetite for plastic. It was practical and cheap. But no one was thinking about the heaps of waste that would end up in the earth or the plastic particles that would assail the oceans. Just like on her husband’s boat, Gontard is charting a course in this field that looks well beyond the horizon. It is imperative not only to have a very long term view when considering the future outcomes of plastic, it is also necessary to recycle plastics as much as possible and to develop plant-based, biodegradable packaging.

No Agro-Waste

Three quarters of all plastics cannot be repeatedly recycled — hence the importance of developing biodegradable packaging. But not all biodegradable packaging is created equal. Just because a product is plant-based, doesn’t automatically mean it is praiseworthy. For example, food packaging can be made out of maize granulate, but if the maize is grown in China in competition with food products, then the product does not have much merit. The idea is to create bioproducts from local, unvalued plant waste, such as grapevine prunings and olive husks. It is also possible to use dairy and winery waste to produce both methane for energy and packaging bioproducts through the use of microorganisms. This is the force driving No Agro-Waste, a major project that Gontard coordinates over 32 countries, including China, with a budget of €8 million. “This project is innovative because we are researching ways to use modelling to assess all the lifecycle impacts a product can have. — And doing so before the fact, not after the product is developed,” Gontard is quick to point out. The goal is to produce packaging that has an overall positive impact.

“In Japan, no one saw me as a woman, just a foreigner”

Inspiration from afar

“Fear begets tunnel vision and gets in the way of long-term thinking,” says Gontard. But fear is one thing she learnt to overcome very early on. After her associate’s degree, she set out round the world seeking inspiration. She travelled through Africa, South America and Asia on her own, trepidatious but with courage in her convictions. She spent ten years studying the use of leaves to wrap food, a traditional practice in these areas. Food can be wrapped in the leaves of various tree species, some of which even change colour when the food inside has spoilt, a handy way to keep track of freshness. With support from CIRAD, she created interdisciplinary teams and set up laboratories in Congo and Benin to study leaf-wrapping industries that were coming under threat by plastic packaging products. In Japan, Gontard studied “smart” packaging. During her thesis, she discovered a wheat protein that changes its physical and electrical properties in the presence of CO2, ammonium and ethanol. While this protein cannot be used in packaging itself, it is an excellent indicator of food breaking down as it spoils. This gave Gontard the idea of using the protein to create an RFID chip for monitoring the build-up of these elements and to create a more realistic expiry date. It is another tool in the fight against food waste and a fine example of innovation making inroads into industrial processes.

“INRA is an amazing organisation serving agriculture and agri-food, both in France and around the world”

Gontard is an optimist who believes in working collaboratively. She has passed her international perspective onto her team, and beyond. Multiple cooperative projects are constantly on the go and Skype is almost always on in the laboratories. In 1999, Gontard set her travelling bags down at the University of Montpellier, later becoming a researcher at INRA Montpellier in 2011. Gontard’s roots are in Ardèche, in central France, where her parents were models of living a simple, self-sufficient life in close communion with nature. Gontard gets a bit emotional when talking about her father, a plumber, gardener, fisherman and truffle expert. From a founding father and two brothers deeply connected to the land, Gontard imparted a way of life on to two adventurous children with spartan lifestyles — a pilot and a diver — and two children with social and environmental sensibilities. It is also easy to understand what led her to her life’s work on plant-based, biodegradable packaging.

In the centre, Nathalie Gontard, recipient of the 2017 Scientific Breakthrough Award, surrounded by the Agropolymer Engineering and Emerging Technologies team, INRA Occitanie-Montpellier Research Centre. © INRA, NICOLAS Bertrand
In the centre, Nathalie Gontard, recipient of the 2017 Scientific Breakthrough Award, surrounded by the Agropolymer Engineering and Emerging Technologies team, INRA Occitanie-Montpellier Research Centre © INRA, NICOLAS Bertrand

Contact(s)
Scientific contact(s):

Associated Division(s):
Science for Food and Bioproduct Engineering
Associated Centre(s):
Occitanie-Montpellier

What's next?

Two main focuses: carrying out research on the outcomes of plastic waste in landfill, and developing the “perfect” packaging in terms of environmental, economic and social criteria. In the mean time, Gontard is continuing her innovative work to create a packaging material with iron particles that will impede food oxyidation and packaging with an RFID chip that can detect food degradation and display a genuine expiry date. She also leads a team working on the design and evaluation of biomaterials.  

Mini-CV

  • 53 years old
  • 1983: Science-stream secondary school diploma
  • 1983–1985: Associate’s degree from the Montpellier Institute of Technology
  • 1985–1988: Engineering and Master’s degree
  • 1988–1991: Ph.D. at the University of Montpellier, post-doctorate from Norwich University
  • 1992–1998: Researcher at CIRAD, lecturer at the Tropical Food Industries Division at ENSIA (renamed AgroParisTech, now under Montpellier SupAgro)
  • 1998–1999: Researcher at Uji University, Japan
  • 2000–2010: Professor at the University of Montpellier
  • 2010: Professor at Kyoto University, Japan
  • Since 2011: research director, Agropolymer Engineering and Emerging Technologies Unit, INRA Montpellier
  • Over 150 publications, numerous awards and prizes, including the Horizon 2020 Étoile de l’Europe Award in 2015
  • Hobbies: reading, cycling, swimming, sailing, dance

Learn more

  • Report on recycling food waste (in French)
  • Decision-making tool for eco-design  > Read the article (in French)
  • Video: Food packaging, innovating for safety and sustainability. Introduction of the CIAG of 08/06/2017 (in French):