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Op-Ed: Solution to packaging pollution? Wrap your food in milk protein

The new move to alternative packaging has finally produced a real contender in the form of edible milk protein packaging which is 500 times more efficient than plastic. Research by the US Department of Agriculture has found that casein with other organic additives is a workable alternative. This is good news for consumers, and for the dairy industry, which can now value add to its core products. The new protein-based packaging is also edible, and commercially viable for packaging even for single-serve products.
One of the problems of plastic is that it is a barely biodegradable material. Some plastics are recyclable, but many aren’t, particularly older polymers. Plastic can persist in the environment for centuries, and some types of plastics include BPAs, which are quite toxic.
You’d think that replacing plastic would be a no-brainer, but as usual all the mindless buzzword babble about “innovation” and “disruptive technologies” hasn’t had a lot to do with practical solutions. The fact that the US Department of Agriculture, better known for its disputes than its innovations, has been the prime mover says a lot about actual innovation in the private sector.
The new packaging eliminates these problems, and also provides effective oxygen blocking, which is one of the usual causes of food spoilage. Food spoilage, in turn, is the cause of a very large amount of food wastage. The wastage costs all consumers hundreds of dollars every year.
Not mentioned in media releases, but another interesting possibility is that casein may also prevent mould from entering food packaging. Cheese, bread, vegetables and many other staple products sold in plastic packaging are very susceptible to molds. Plastic tends to act as an incubator for molds.
Just for the record – obvious as this may seem, there are a lot of things other than food which are also highly oxygen-sensitive. Pharmaceuticals and other materials are also highly reactive to oxygen. There is a lot to be said for somebody taking a long hard look at what this packaging can really do.
The other big deal here is that this new protein packaging is eminently sustainable. Unlike plastic, which being a carbon product is directly linked to the sinking, senile ship of the oil industry, protein-based packaging can be produced forever.
The word “sustainable”, in fact, is a business term just as much as an environmental term. After all these years of denial about dwindling resources, “sustainable” is the new code word for “viable”.
The environmental damage of plastic is everywhere. Unless you’ve been living in a cave for last 50 years, it’s not exactly hard to spot. Any alternative to plastic packaging has to be a good thing. The oceans are full of plastic, most of which was originally packaging of some kind. Current environmental theory is that plastics are being processed both directly through the food chain and through passive chemical breakdown in to human food.
This is a huge step forward. With any luck, the packaging industry will see the huge values in this new packaging. There’s some reason to believe that they will. Many of the big online distributors have been moving to recyclable packaging of various kinds, notably paper, and they tend to call the tune.
This new packaging will also make online food ordering a lot easier to manage. It will help retailers, too, reducing spoilage and improving food quality deliverables.
The rest of the plastic problem, however, remains unresolved. Will someone heroically decide to take out the garbage, or will it just get left there for another hundred years?

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