In the U.S., convenience food is king. A 2015 analysis showed that packaged, processed foods make up more than 60% of the foods we buy at the grocery store. Beyond nutrition and food waste, there is one glaring problem with the trend: Much of that packaging is not recyclable. While some containers, like milk cartons and soda cans, are recyclable, plastic that is often wrapped around say, bags of salad, is often not.
This might change in the near future thanks to researchers at the U.S Department of Agriculture, Bloomberg reported. The scientists have created an edible, biodegradable packaging film made of milk! Well, more specifically, made of casein, a protein derived from milk.
The film, which also contains glycerol (to make it softer) and citrus pectin (to give it more structure), is much more protective of food than plastic. "These casein-based films are up to 500 times better than plastics at keeping oxygen away from food," Science Daily reported. The film is also more effective than the current edible packaging on the market, which is typically made from starches, Bloomberg added.
Another big advantage of the edible casein packaging — besides its environmental impact and food-saving efficiency — is that it can actually be a healthy addition to food. It's possible to add things like vitamins and flavoring to the packaging. "These films will be more health-enhancing than starches," USDA researcher Laetitia Bonnaillie told Bloomberg.
The casein film also dissolves in liquid, meaning that consumers may soon be able to drop a packet of sugar or dried soup into a hot liquid instead of having to pour in the contents. Not only would consumers not have to throw out the packaging after, but the casein film would also add a bit of protein to whatever it is placed in, Bloomberg noted.
However, that dissolving benefit is also one of the packaging's biggest drawbacks. The casein-wrapped items require storage in a non-dissolving container to keep them dry and protect them from getting dirt. The additional container is also needed to prevent other people from touching the outside of someone's food and spreading germs. Though finding a container isn't a large problem: There are plenty of recyclable materials out there to build containers out of.
While the casein film is still in the development stage, it might become an industry standard in the very near future. Bonnaillie told Science Daily that her group is currently working on prototype samples for a company in Texas, and that other companies have shown interest. She predicts the casein film will hit store shelves in the next three years, possibly making non-recyclable plastic packaging a relic of the past.