Is Cheese the Next Sustainable Packaging Solution?

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Elodie Bugnicourt, ecomaterials group leader for IRIS, holds a sample of the research company's new bioplastic made from whey protein. Photo: European Commission

Cheese makes a tasty addition to any meal, but did you ever guess it could be used for packaging?

Researchers say that a biodegradable plastic made from cheese byproducts could reduce the need for synthetic packaging and keep useful materials out of the landfill.

The bioplastic made from whey protein is the result of the three-year WheyLayer project, a European Commission-funded research and development project in Spain’s Catalonia region that aims to solve a common packaging woe.

In the food industry, oxidation of oils, fats and other components can lead to unpleasant colors and flavors. So, keeping oxygen out of packaged food is essential.

SEE: 5 Absurdly Over-Packaged Foods

Plastics like PE (polyethylene) and PP (polypropylene) are excellent moisture-blockers, but to keep out oxygen, they must be coated with expensive synthetic polymers.

Most of these polymers – such as EVOH (ethylene vinyl alcohol polymer) and PVDC (polyvinylidene chloride polymer) – are petroleum-based and extremely difficult to reuse, as it is almost impossible to separate each layer for individual recycling.

Whey, the milk protein byproduct of cheese production, provides similar oxygen-blocking properties, but it’s much cheaper and more environmentally friendly.

The new packaging – developed by Barcelona-based research company IRIS – replaces synthetics with whey protein-coated plastic fibers, which could save loads of money and make packaging more readily recyclable.

After packaging is used, whey protein can be chemically or enzymatically removed, and underlying plastic can be easily recycled or reused to make new packaging.

RECYCLING MYSTERY: Bioplastics

In addition to saving money and raw materials, the new application could also keep millions of tons of whey out of European landfills. Each year, European cheese factories produce 50 million tons of whey. Some of it is reused as food additives, but almost 40 percent is thrown away.

Discarded whey collected from cheese producers can be filtered and dried to extract the pure whey protein, which can be used in several thin layers to create a plastic film for use in food packaging.

While the packaging is subject to patent applications, researchers expect it to appear in consumer products within a year. The bioplastic is expected to be used for cosmetics packaging first, and food packaging applications will follow.

The technology will likely be used in the European market at first. But many companies from around the globe showed interest in the packaging when researchers took it to the Interpack international trade fair for packaging and processes back in May.

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