Original news release was issued by the American Chemical Society.
Foods and beverages come in all sorts of shapes, sizes and flavors. But there is one thing they usually have in common: plastic packaging. On one hand, this kind of wrapping undeniably offers a vast array of benefits such as airtight protection from damage, ease of use and opening, the ability to be molded into seemingly limitless shapes, or aesthetics. On the other hand, plastics create a lot of non-recyclable and non-biodegradable waste, and are also not great at preventing food spoilage. It is estimated that 299 million tons of plastics were produced in 2013 with 22 – 43% being disposed of in landfills and 8 million metric tons of our plastic waste enter the oceans from land each year.
Now, researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture have taken steps to address these issues. They are developing an environmentally friendly packaging film made of milk protein casein. These casein-based films are up to 500 times better than plastics at keeping oxygen away from food and, because they are derived from milk, are biodegradable, sustainable and edible. On top of that, the milk-based packaging has smaller pores as opposed to some commercially available edible packaging, thus creates a tighter network that keeps oxygen out. The researchers believe this casein packaging could hit the shelves within 3 years.
After a few additional improvements, the casein-based packaging looks similar to plastic wraps bought in stores, but is less stretchy and far better at blocking oxygen. The material is edible and made almost entirely of proteins. The researchers say that nutritious additives such as vitamins and also flavorings could be added in the future.
“The coatings applications for this product are endless,” says Laetitia Bonnaillie, Ph.D., co-leader of the study. “We are currently testing applications such as single-serve, edible food wrappers. For instance, individually wrapped cheese sticks use a large proportion of plastic — we would like to fix that.”
In addition to being used instead of plastic wraps, casein coating could also be sprayed onto food, such as cereal flakes or bars. To prevent soggy cereals, casein-protein coating could be used instead of all that sugar. The spray could also be used as a lamination step for food boxes to keep the grease from staining the packaging. Since the perfluorinated substances that used to coat the containers got banned, this type of casein coating could prove to be a safe, biodegradable alternative.