Germany could cover Lake Constance with the clear film applied each year to seal in freshness on food packaging. But what is good for flavour is not necessarily good for the environment.
EU-funded researchers now say they have a solution that will protect foods from contamination and retain freshness by replacing petrochemical material with a coating produced from dairy byproducts.
Klaus Noller of the Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging said yesterday (11 January) the discovery “finally means the end” to the oxygen-blocking packaging films that are difficult to recycle and not biodegradable.
EU seeks to cut packaging waste
The development is a potential boost to European policies aimed at shifting to recyclable and biodegradable materials and to EU pledges to eliminate landfilling by 2020 – goals that now appear unachievable in several member states.
The EU’s Waste Framework Directive requires national governments to produce waste-reduction plans by 12 December 2013. The Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive sets standards and recycling targets.
The key ingredient in the Fraunhofer Institute’s packaging material is whey – the watery milk resulting during the formation of curd in cheesemaking.
Noller said his team used powered whey powder and formulated it into a wet coating that is applied – “like a lacquer” – to seal the clear cover of food containers. The seal blocks oxygen and moisture that can contaminate meats and prepared foods.
The material is as effective as current petrochemcial-based polymers and can be commercially developed at roughly the same price, Noller said. The one drawback is that so far the researchers have not been able to apply the whey coating to moulded cartons made of plastic or other material.
The German institute worked with dairy producers, packaging companies and recyclers over the past three years to produce what Noller says is a product that could begin to replace non-biodegradable materials within two years. A pilot project is already underway in Slovenia, he said.
Unlike non-renewable materials, the whey-based sealant is easily dissolved so plastic or other wrap can be recycled, the Fraunhofer researcher said.
The ‘wheylayer’ project received €3.3 million through the European Union’s framework programme and involved collaborators from Germany, Hungary, Slovenia, Italy, Spain and Ireland.
In Germany alone, 640 square kilometres of packaging using petrochemical polymers will be produced in 2014 – enough to cover the Alpine Lake Constance bordered by Germany, Switzerland and Austria.
Scientists say traditional polymers such as ethylene vinyl alcohol that are used to form oxygen barriers on packaging are effective but come with multiple drawbacks: they are derived from petroleum products, difficult to separate the layers from plastic and other packaging for recycling, and are not biodegradable.
Sealing layers derived from whey, however, are easily dissolved and the resulting liquid is biodegradable. Researchers note another advantage: whey is currently used in animal feed, but much of it is wasted and finding new uses offers a revenue source for dairy farmers.
- 12 Dec. 2013: The EU’s Waste Framework Directive requires the 27 national governments to produce waste-reduction plans