The research team is currently creating prototype film samples for a small company in Texas, and says this new development has garnered interest among other companies, too.
Research leader Peggy Tomasula predicts this casein packaging will be on store shelves within three years.
Thin plastic films that cover meats, breads, cheeses and snacks at grocery stores create tons of non-recyclable, non-biodegradable waste that sits in landfills. It’s also not great at preventing food spoilage — which increases food waste, the single largest component of US municipal solid waste — and may leach potentially harmful compounds into food.
The USDA researchers say their film, made of the milk protein casein, is a more sustainable packaging option than petroleum-based plastics. These casein-based films look similar to store-bought plastic wrap, but it is less stretchy. They are also up to 500 times better than plastics at keeping oxygen away from food. Because they are derived from milk, they are biodegradable and edible.
“The protein-based films are powerful oxygen blockers that help prevent food spoilage,” Tomasula said in a statement. “When used in packaging, they could prevent food waste during distribution along the food chain.”
Some commercially available edible packaging varieties are already on the market, but these are typically made of starch, which is more porous and allows oxygen to seep through its microholes. The USDA researchers say their milk-based packaging has smaller pores and can thus create a tighter network that keeps oxygen out.
Co-lead researcher Laetitia Bonnaillie says the researchers are currently testing applications such as single-serve, edible food wrappers. “For instance, individually wrapped cheese sticks use a large proportion of plastic — we would like to fix that.”
In an earlier interview Lux Research’s Meraldo Antonio, a research associate on the firm’s bio-based materials and chemicals team, said edible packaging will “continue to attract media attention, although mass commercialization is still distant.”
PepsiCo is reportedly considering edible packaging and Loliware manufactures bioplastic packaging made from biodegradable — and edible — materials.
In 2013 a California sushi restaurant launched a program that uses edible technology — served on the sushi — to provide diners with sustainability information about the fish.