Leaf No Waste Progresses to the Seed Phase of the SFI Future Innovator Prize

28 Apr, 2021

Leaf No Waste at TU Dublin is one of four teams to make it to the Seed Phase of the Food Challenge under the SFI Future Innovator Prize Programme. The initiative is competing with three other food-based research projects for a €2 million prize fund.

Ireland is one of the largest producers of plastic waste in Europe, generating an average of 61kgs per person every year. According to the EPA, we also produce one million tonnes of food waste each year. To reduce food and plastic waste, researchers at Technological University Dublin (TU Dublin) are investigating methods to extend the shelf life of salad leaves and allow producers to move away from plastic packaging to more sustainable, compostable options. At the project's core, is the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 12: Sustainable consumption and production.

Leaf No Waste, which has received funding from the SFI Future Innovator Prize, is a joint research project led by Lorraine Foley and Professor Jesus Maria Frias Celayeta of TU Dublin in collaboration with Dr Lael Walsh and Dr Shivani Pathania of Teagasc and Karen O’Donohoe of Grow It Yourself.

Lorraine Foley, a lecturer in Horticulture at TU Dublin and Principal Investigator for the Leaf No Waste research project, explains that consumers are eager to reduce plastic waste associated with food. Through engagement with growers within this sector, Leaf No Waste found that using alternative plastics such as compostable packaging for fresh leaf salads negatively affected quality, costs, and food waste. Some growers also observed wilting of green leaves, discolouration and desiccation when they tried different compostables. This Catch-22 convinced Leaf No Waste to explore options that will build resilience into the supply chain in a cost-effective way, safeguarding the transition to sustainable food production for Irish growers and reducing food waste.

Lorraine says, “The potential of silicon to enrich and extend the shelf life of fresh produce using compostable packaging has not been tested before. We set out to explore our hypothesis that by using silicon on crops during growth, then the harvested produce shelf life will remain stable when packaged in alternative packaging.”

To test the theory, Leaf No Waste created a pilot study by growing 600 salad leaf plants on the Blanchardstown campus of TU Dublin. Treatments of silicon were applied as a foliar spray to test plants. When harvested, the team will examine its shelf life using a range of packaging in Teagasc and post-harvest testing in the Greenway Hub, a research and innovation hub on the University’s campus in Grangegorman. Professor Jesus Maria Frias Celayeta will lead this work.

The next phase will see the team trial silicon fertiliser on spinach crops in a field setting, with two harvests due over the growing season with project partners, McCormack Family Farms. The team will conduct a number of tests and may identify other pre-harvest interventions which will increase the suitability of compostable plastics.

If the hypothesis is proved correct, the application of silicon as a foliar spray for crops is cost-effective and scalable. The viability of this approach can also be measured by identifying the trade-off between sustainable packaging and food loss using Life Cycle Assessment.

Lorraine explains that Leaf No Waste will safeguard a new era for sustainable packaging by maintaining shelf life and eliminating conventional plastics. “By moving away from plastic packaging, the environmental profile of the Irish grower and retail sector is raised. Using compostables successfully creates a closed-loop cycle in food production, with waste correctly entering the recycling phase. In addition, buyers and consumers are empowered with having the choice of purchasing fresh produce in compostable packaging reducing household plastic waste.”

Leaf No Waste is supported by the SFI Future Innovator Prize, which is funded by the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, as part of an overall government plan to cultivate challenge-based funding in Ireland. The project was one of four to make it to the Seed Phase of the SFI Food Challenge, which aims to support the development of sustainable solutions to reduce food loss and waste across the full breadth of the food supply chain.

More information about the Seed Phase of the SFI Food Challenge is available here