Scientists work to develop biodegradable plastic from cheese-making waste

April 8, 2004, Manufacturers may soon have more options for sustainable packaging as research is under way to develop a biodegradable plastic. The European Union-founded consortium is developing an industrial system for producing the eco-friendly plastic from whey separated from milk curd during cheese-making.

Every year Europe produces 50 million tonnes (55m US tons) of whey; thirty percent of this is currently being discarded. The WHEYPOL project would utilize this waste product to create a plastic that would eventually decompose in the soil, yielding only carbon dioxide and water.

To make the plastic the polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) generated in the cheese-making process would be synthesized from whey into plastic. These are biodegradable polyesters that WHEYPOL says could replace conventional packaging plastics. Techniques being investigated include melt blow extrusion and injection molding for conversion of the polyesters into environment-friendly films and containers.