Three environmental Problems

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, for instance, is giving new meaning to the notion of pizza with extra cheese: A team at its research laboratory in Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania, has developed a material from milk protein that can be used to line pizza boxes, encase cheese or create, say, soluble soup packets that can simply be dropped in hot water.

The product could even serve as a substitute for the sugar used to coat cereal flakes to prevent them from going soggy too fast, said Peggy Tomasula, a research leader at the laboratory — although she also noted that at this point, it may be uneconomical for some applications.

The project grew out of the Agriculture Department’s search for ways to put some of its stockpiles of milk powder to use; fluid milk consumption has steadily declined for years, but federal subsidies for the dairy industry have kept production humming.

The Merck Forest and Farmland Center, a nonprofit environmental group in Rupert, Vermont, that supports itself by selling maple syrup, faced a quandary of its own.

“We were going to great expense to make maple syrup and even somewhat more expense to get organic certification — and then shipping it in all this plastic, ” said Tom Ward, a former executive director of the center, referring to the containers and foam pellets it used to ship orders. “That just seemed nonsensical.”

So for the past two years, the group has sent its syrup out in glass bottles cradled in a molded material made from mushrooms.

“You can literally break it up and put it in a compost pile, then scatter it around your rose bushes, ” Ward said. “I think what we’re doing is a microcosm of what’s coming in terms of products that are sustainable from start to finish.”

That mushroom-based packaging is the invention of Ecovative, a design company in Green Island, New York.

“I studied mechanical engineering, and as I was working on turbines, I couldn’t forget what I saw as a child growing up on a farm in Vermont, ” Eben Bayer, a founder, said. “Biology really is the best technology available, and we’ve started thinking about living cells more as living machines.”

Over the past several years, governments have quietly bankrolled efforts to develop packaging from food. The European Union, which underwrote a project to develop coatings from whey and potato proteins from 2011 to 2015, estimates that the global market for so-called bioplastics is growing by as much as 30 percent each year.

Bringing those products to market, however, is a challenge. The Agriculture Department, for example, tried to build interest in a milk-protein-based product more than a decade ago but found no takers, Tomasula said. Cost and the fact that it was susceptible to moisture made it a hard sell.

“Edible films were just getting started then, and there were a lot of people playing around with them, ” she said. “But food waste and food security weren’t big issues then, and nobody really seemed to notice them.”

Times have changed. Mike Lee, the founder of the Future Market, a firm that forecasts trends, has been keeping an eye on products like the cheese packaging. “I can even see a grocery store free of conventional packaging some day, ” Lee said.

But he sees hurdles. “Even though these products are important, ” he said, “until someone steps up and says, ‘I’m going to use it on a big scale, ’ they’re just science looking for an application.”

Big companies like PepsiCo and Nestlé are more interested today than they were years ago, goaded by consumers who are increasingly aware that the food they eat and its packaging can damage the environment. The companies remain skeptical, however.

“Some of the stuff out there is just gimmicky, ” said David Strauss, the head of packaging in Nestlé’s U.S. operations. “They sound nice but will never be cost-competitive or, in a final analysis, don’t have the impact on waste or the environment that the people making them promise.”

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