Got Milk? An Alternative to Plastic Foam Packaging

In the ongoing search for how to produce expanded polystyrene foam (EPS) with a smaller environmental footprint, a new competitor has entered the field, and it does a body good.

Scientists at Case Western Reserve University have discovered a way to incorporate dairy into a new type of foam packaging. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Scientists at Case Western Reserve University have developed a new form of foam plastic packaging made using a protein from cow milk, according to Discovery News. This packaging could be an alternative to traditional EPS, typically made using natural gas.

The protein in question, casein, is already utilized for adhesive products. To create a stable material, the scientists mixed it with clay and freeze-dried it to prevent the foam from dissolving in water. The product has been designed for everything from packaging to insulation and has been tested to biodegrade up to 30 percent within the first month.

The milk-based foam is another potential alternative to traditional EPS. Dell has experimented with using bamboo to package its laptop computers; the U.S. Department of Agriculture has researched making foam plastic from starches, such as potatoes; and a company called MicroGreen is using PET resin to make foam plastic from other, more highly recycled plastics.

EPS recycling rates and local availability continue to grow. For example, Los Angeles recycles the material as part of its curbside program. And while some consumers across the country may not have curbside access to traditional foam recycling, materials like the milk-based plastic may not have a likely market for recycling, considering the biodegradable nature of the product that Case Western reports.

This brings to light the continued need to grow recycling opportunities for all types of materials, regardless of their composition.

According to Dart Container Corporation, an EPS manufacturer and recycler, traditional EPS can be recycled into a variety of materials ranging from interior molding and picture frames to horticultural materials like “pony packs” used for flowers at nurseries across the country.

The Case Western research did not mention how much a milk-based plastic would cost to produce, or when it would be available in product form.

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Can Starbucks Find a Way to Recycle 4 Billion Cups?
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Editor’s Note: This article was updated Nov. 23 to correct the following information: Updates on current EPS recycling availability, the use of natural gas to create the material and common uses of recycled EPS.

Trey Granger

Trey Granger

Trey Granger is a former senior waste stream analyst for Earth911.
Trey Granger

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  1. I’m wondering where Trey got his information. Where was this product tested to biodegrade 30% in the first month and under what conditions? If it was a compost site the problem is they are very few compost sites so the product would end up in a landfill and under the EPA subtitle D regulations this new waste stream would be protected from the elements that breaks down products like these “bio degrade” products.. EPS is extremely recyclable according to the people at AFPR and cups and plates are recycled everyday. I can think of a school system of elementary students in Florida that would argue anything different. They have been recycling their lunch EPS into beautiful planters for the last couple of years. Unless you own some stock in the company above you should do more homework before writing negative information about a product.

  2. I agree with Lucas, EPS can be and IS being recycled into new products.
    Also think carefully before taking a food product and using it for packaging. The move to growing biofuel was not thought through and has led to a disastrous rise in wheat prices which of course impacts worst on the poorest communities in the world.
    It’s time to think carefully about the prejudice against oil based products and to weigh up all products on a case by case basis.
    EPS is incredibly lightweight being 98% air – which helps enormously to reduce fuel consumption in transportation of products.
    As for marine litter – teach ppl not to drop the stuff!

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