John Lucey

John A. Lucey is a professor of food science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the director of the Center for Dairy Research.

Packaging is essential to maintaining and protecting the quality of the cheese product as well as attracting the eye of consumers. There are some interesting innovations in the food packaging industry. We are also facing challenges and questions like how can we produce packaging that is recyclable and/or biodegradable?

In general, there’s a big push in the food industry to make more plastic packaging materials recycle-ready. This process may be gradual and start with in-store drop-off with the eventual goal of consumers putting those packaging materials right into their home recycle bins (if they have one in their location). A challenge is that food packaging often comes into direct contact with the food product and can be difficult to properly clean. Because of this, sorting facilities have to divert some recyclable material into landfills or other disposal methods. Overall, the capacity and effectiveness of recycling in municipalities across the U.S. is a big challenge.

Currently, most of our plastics and packaging are made from fossil fuels, which, of course, are not renewable. In addition, many traditional fossil fuel-based plastics do not easily break down. It is possible to make biodegradable plastics utilizing fossil fuel-derived chemicals, but a much better option would be to produce more bio-based plastics or bioplastics, which are made using substances like corn starch, vegetable fats, and oils, etc. Currently, only about 1% of our plastics are bio-based, which, in addition to being produced with sustainable resources, can also be biodegradable and/or compostable.

The dairy industry, in particular, is in a position to contribute to the innovation in bioplastics. Here at the Center for Dairy Research (CDR), we are supporting research investigating methods to produce bioplastics from dairy waste. Dr. Erica Majumder, a bacteriology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is engineering microorganisms to ferment low-value acid whey into PHB (polyhydroxbutrate), which is a polymer that can be used to make a wide range of biodegradable plastics.

Another exciting project is being led by Dr. Tim Donohue, a bacteriology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is investigating the production of pure lactic acid from the biofermentation of cheese whey. Pure lactic acid can be used to make polylactic acid, which is a renewable and biodegradable bioplastic.

One of the challenges with these innovations is scaling up these technologies from the benchtop research stage to industrial production. This is something that CDR wants to help with. The Dairy Business Innovation Alliance (administered by CDR and the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association) received supplemental funding from the USDA, which is being used to purchase larger bioreactors to evaluate the commercial viability of these new biofermentation processes. The CDR will also get specialized pilot-scale equipment that can purify the new green chemicals produced from these biofermentations. These are exciting projects that CDR and DBIA are proud to support.

The cheese packaging industry is also working hard to reduce the amount of plastics it uses. One strategy to use less plastic has been to develop thinner packaging film, which reduces the carbon footprint of the packaging. Of course, the packaging film still needs to protect and maintain the product while also appealing to consumers.

While sustainability and reducing the carbon footprint has been the main focus of this article there are other interesting innovations in packaging. For instance, some packaging may utilize QR codes to provide more information to consumers. People can scan the QR code and learn more about the story of the manufacturer who produced the product or the farm where the milk came from. This could be especially impactful for smaller producers who want to tell the story behind their product.

One other issue I want to briefly mention is food waste, which is a significant global problem, as huge volumes end up in landfills. In general, better packaging materials and shelf-life extension processes can help reduce food waste by preserving the quality of the product (less spoilage).

In summary, I think that it is possible that we can move from traditional fossil-based plastics to biodegradable bioplastics, some of which could be made with renewable dairy wheys. This will take a big effort and lots of innovations, including the need to engineer microorganisms to produce these green chemicals, as well as developing cost-effective methods to isolate the target chemicals produced in the bioreactor. I think the investment is well worth it. This would represent a big step forward in packaging and greatly appeal to consumers concerned about sustainability.