The MANDALA Project: Pioneering Sustainable Packaging

Sustainability and Digital Transformation in the Food Industry

Jorge Barriobero

Jorge Barriobero

Agricultural Engineer from University of La Rioja (UR) and Agronomist Engineer by the Public University of Navarra (UPNA)

Jorge Barriobero has been PMP® and R&D project coordinator for more than twelve years. Since he finished his studies in 2006, he has participated in several research projects at regional, national, and international level with interest for agro-food companies, where he has been, for most of them, the main researcher and project manager. Currently, he is responsible of Packaging and Preservation Area at the agri-food technology center FUDin, mainly working in European projects. He has extensive experience in the coordination and technical development of sustainable materials for food packaging, testing functional properties of packaging and its influence on the food quality.

In a world increasingly prioritising sustainability, Jorge Barriobero Olarte, Research and Development project manager and head of Packaging and Preservation at CTIC-CITA, leads the charge with the MANDALA project, based on eco-design, dual functionality, and the optimization of end-of-life systems.

“Sustainability is key in Europe and around the world,” says Olarte and in a conversation with REVOLVE, he delves into the project’s mission, which has been four years in the making, highlighting the concept of adhesives with dual functionality as a linchpin in sustainable packaging.

CTIC-CITA, a pivotal player specialising in food packaging and preservation, contributes expertise to the endeavour. MANDALA addresses the challenges of non-recyclable multilayer films used in food packaging by developing adhesives with dual functionalities. These adhesives allow for the separation and recovery of mono-material plastic sheets, reducing waste and enhancing the quality and shelf-life of food products.

In this interview, Olarte discusses the pillars of the MANDALA project and his involvement in the sustainability initiative funded by the Circular Bio-based Europe Joint Undertaking.

Can you explain the concept of adhesives with double functionality and how they enhance the sustainability of the packaging?

CTIC-CITA is a Food Technology Center that supports the agri-food industry with its five strategic areas: Ingredients and Health, Processes, Quality and Food Safety, Sensory and Consumer, New Products, and Food Packaging and Preservation. In this way, the Packaging and Food Preservation area is the most linked with MANDALA, as it specialises in increasing the shelf-life of food and improving the quality of packaged products.

Today, multilayer films are used for food packaging, in which each layer is composed of different polymers that perform specific functions like mechanical and barrier properties. However, they are not recyclable, and [at] the end of their useful life [the options are] incineration or landfill. The reason for utilising complex films is that no individual material satisfies all the essential criteria for product preservation.

For this reason, MANDALA [develops] dual functionalities in the adhesives to solve the end-of-life problem while meeting food and pharma requirements. To develop the new adhesives, different thermo-reversible adducts have been synthesized in polyurethane, the most widely used commercial adhesive in multilayer plastics. Then, films with this new adhesive can be treated in recycling plants to obtain, separately, the different mono-material plastic sheets. In this way, high-quality recycled materials are obtained. At the same time, the adhesives will be able to improve the barrier properties of the food packaging materials.

In this manner, our objective in this project is to maintain the quality and shelf-life of food products compared to those packaged with traditional materials, enhancing the sustainability of the packaging with a second chance at life for these separated and recovered mono-materials through the recycling process.

How might the sustainable packaging project leverage the digital platform to enhance its environmental impact or improve supply chain efficiency?

Today, sustainability is key in Europe and the world, and the new demands, marked by European strategies, in terms of sustainable packaging, are clear. Digitalisation can therefore improve and optimize processes in the food industry, being more precise and, of course, maintaining or even improving food safety, always avoiding food waste, which is one of the most important issues currently in the world.

Could biodegradable inks be used to stamp a QR code on MANDALA’s film that could carry the digital information (product history and traceability) recorded by BBTWINS?

Of course. In fact, we are also working on another project using bio-inks with the aim of achieving a 100% biodegradable food packaging material.

In my opinion, printing QR codes with bio-inks could be a perfect option to include all the information about traceability, using conditions, health properties, composition, packaging materials, recycling process, recipes, information related to ingredients, processing, material properties, modified atmosphere conditions, typical problems during the shelf-life of packaged foods, etc.

In addition, it might be a good idea to interact with the consumer. For instance, in the MANDALA project, using our MUNDOSABOR platform, we have launched a survey to pilot a household community using an ad hoc methodology.

[Using this methodology] we have obtained information about which are the consumer’s concerns in terms of sustainability, attitude toward recycling, knowledge of eco-design, and packaging formats that they use the most. In this way, the platform could connect with the QR code and use it to ask consumers their demands, opinions, behaviour, how much they are willing to pay, and so on.

The MANDALA project is funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme.