Scientists say polymers such as ethylene vinyl alcohol used to form oxygen barriers in packaging are effective, but come with some drawbacks. They’re derived from petroleum, are difficult to recycle if layered in other plastics in packaging and aren’t biodegradable.

But sealing layers derived from whey can be easily dissolved and the resulting liquid is biodegradable, they claim. The development could be a potential coup to European policies aimed at shifting to recyclable and biodegradable materials and to EU pledges to eliminate landfilling by 2020.

EU-funded research now say they have a solution that will l protect foods from contamination and retain freshness by replacing petrochemical materials with the coating produced from dairy byproducts.

Klaus Noller of the Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging says that the discovery “finally means the end” to the oxygen-blocking packaging films that are difficult to recycle and that don’t biodegrade. Whey, the key ingredient in the new packaging material is the watery milk resulting during the formation of curd in cheese making. Noller says his team used powered whey powder and formulated it into a wet coating that was applied “like a lacquer” to seal the clear cover of food containers. The seal blocks oxygen and moisture that can contaminate meats and prepared foods.

The material is as effective as current petrochemical-based polymers and can be commercially developed at roughly the same price, Noller said. The one drawback is that so far the researchers have not been able to apply the whey coating to molded cartons made of plastic or other material.