New research suggests ways for milk to replace plastic

This story has been making the rounds the past few days, and I’ll be honest, I’m conflicted about it:

U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers have discovered that a milk protein called casein can be used to develop an edible, biodegradable packaging film. The casein-based film is up to 500 times better than plastic at keeping oxygen away from food because proteins form a tighter network when they polymerize, the researchers found. It’s also more effective than current edible packaging materials made from starch and protects food products that are sensitive to light.

On the one hand, the idea of replacing plastics with a product derived from milk would probably result in exponential growth of the dairy industry. Not only would that expansion be awful news for vegans and animal rights activists, but the product — that is, the plastic-substitute created — would make things very complicated for those who are allergic to dairy, or  who can’t eat it because of other dietary restrictions (e.g. folks who keep kosher).

On the other hand, biodegradable plastics could dramatically reduce the amount of waste we generate each year. What’s not to like about that?

Surely there’s a way around this. Surely there’s a way to artificially produce casein without relying on mammals. I mean, we can grow meat and diamonds in labs, so I have to believe that someone somewhere can mass-produce protein without having to keep cows, goats, and sheep in confinement, right?

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