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Spring 2022 Newsletter

Researching sustainable solutions with the Polymer & Food Protection Consortium

Katie Updegraff takes samples of headspace gas in salad packages
PFPC Project Manager Katie Updegraff takes samples of headspace gas from salad packages being studied for shelf life. 

Since moving to a BCRF lab space in 2021, the Polymer & Food Protection Consortium (PFPC) has settled into their space and begun working on a variety of research-driven and industry partnered projects.

Most recently, the group – directed by Dr. Keith Vorst – has worked on a number of projects dealing with repurposing waste materials and the shelf life of food packaging made from recycled plastic.

The PFPC researches a wide variety of uses and techniques for recycling and repurposing waste plastics and bio-based materials, and their recent research driven projects included developing upholstery foam or packaging foam from coffee chaff, rice hulls, and other bio-based waste products. According to PFPC Project Manager Katie Updegraff, this research

Industry partners also frequently send product samples to the group for individual testing. When it comes to studies regarding shelf life like the team has recently been working on, this testing includes strategically measuring changes in food product color as well as measuring headspace gas changes within the package.

“We are currently running a long-term shelf-life study on packaged hot dogs to see how light affects color fading between a control film and innovation films,” Updegraff said. “We also completed a shelf-life study recently on pre-packaged salads to define its shelf-life limitations.”

A number of salads being tested for shelf life
Many of the packaging products tested by the group are made of biobased or recycled plastics, like this group of salads from a recent research activity. 

According to Updegraff, the research the group does regarding sustainable packaging and products is largely driven by changes in the packaging industry. Many states are now requiring new products to be packaged in containers made from recycled plastics, and the group’s industry partners are utilizing the PFPC to ensure new packaging yields the same results as the old products.

“Determining how different types of recycled plastic perform comparatively helps our industry partners make informed decisions on which recycled materials to focus on to meet these new regulations,” Updegraff said.

Additionally, Updegraff said studying the shelf life of products while researching the packaging helps industry partners understand and address their impacts on food waste.

Moving forward, the group expects to focus more intensely on recycled materials to provide sustainable solutions and meet new requirements in the packaging industry.

“The global issue of plastic accumulation is not going away anytime soon, but performing research on recycled products will help the industry take steps in the right direction,” Updegraff said.

To learn more about the Polymer & Food Protection Consortium or get involved with their research, go to their website or email Program Coordinator Amy Vorst at

BCRF Alumni Spotlight: Paul Nahnsen

Paul NahnsenStudent Employee at BCRF: 2011-2013

Degree: B.S. Agricultural Systems Technology and Industrial Technology, 2013

Current Position: Regional Account Manager, Titan Pro SCI

With majors in Agricultural Systems Technology and Industrial Technology at Iowa State University, a student job at the BioCentury Research Farm was a natural fit for Paul Nahnsen. Even so, it was his experiences working at the BCRF that further helped shape his career path into what it is today.

After working at the Center for Crops Research Utilization for some time, Nahnsen started working at the BCRF in the summer of 2011. There, he said, the large variety of tasks and projects helped him narrow down the many options he had when picking a career. He quickly learned that while he didn’t enjoy the data collection side of the projects, he thrived on preparing and executing them.

“I loved the process of thinking through how to complete a project, setting up equipment, and then seeing the initial run-through with real results,” he said. “This is why I worked as a production supervisor for the first seven years of my career.”

According to Nahnsen, there were three specific skills that he gained through his experiences at the BCRF that he still utilizes today: project management, public speaking and being able to step outside of your comfort zone.

Between working on real-life project scenarios, giving countless tours of the BCRF facility and facing obstacles he was expected to meet head-on, Nahnsen said he felt well prepared for the challenges he has experienced in his career. In particular, he offered some advice for tackling difficulties both as a student and a young professional.

“Be willing to do the research, ask questions, and try until you succeed,” he said.

For Nahnsen, the experience of working at the BCRF was just as valuable as his education from Iowa Stat. While the time in class taught him how to handle ideal situations, working on projects at the facility allowed him to learn in real-world conditions.

“At the farm, you get the opportunity to work through the unforeseen challenges and learn how to better prepare for the next project,” he said. “It was an honor to work there and I would recommend it to students at Iowa State now.”