Got Milk? An Alternative to Plastic Foam Packaging

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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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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.

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