Bioplastic Made From Milk and Clay Is An Iffy Alternative

milk splash photo

Photo by AMagill via Flickr Creative Commons

Coming up with an alternative plastic that has all the benefits of petroleum-based plastics but none of the negatives such as, oh, lasting forever, has been a serious challenge for researchers. Even plant-based plastics which are touted as a green alternative aren't all that green since they rely on energy intensive agriculture for the corn used in manufacturing and require energy intensive recycling methods. But researchers have come up with a new possibility, using milk and clay as primary ingredients.Researchers at Case Western Reserve University have come up with a new biodegradable foam plastic, mixing casein protein found in milk with clay and glyceralderhyde. The result is a substance that can work for anything from cushions and insulation to packaging.

According to the researchers, about 80% of cow milk proteins is casein, which is already used in making adhesives. Adding clay and the reactive molecule glyceraldehyde strengthens it, and freeze-drying it removes excess water. The foamy plastic is then cured in an oven. The result is a plastic that can hold up for commercial purposes, but will break down by as much as 33% in about 30 days when it hits a landfill.

While the biodegradability of the new plastic is a big plus when looking at the impact of plastics on landfills and marine environments, milk isn't exactly an ideal ingredient since the dairy industry has an enormous environmental footprint, including water consumption, water pollution, and of course the notorious greenhouse gas emissions coming from both ends of a cow. It seems that this solution could simply shift the environmental burdens of fossil fuel-based plastic into other departments, rather than lightening the eco-impact on the whole.

The results of the study are published in Biomacromolecules.

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