Material Highlight: Lactips

by Rudy Sanchez on 04/17/2020 | 3 Minute Read

Some 7,500 years ago, humans discovered that cows didn't need to hoard all of their milk for just their calves, and they decided they should horn in on the action as well. And while it might be a little strange to imagine taking another animal's milk and drinking it yourself (especially when humans had to genetically evolve to do so), it is hard to deny cheese and yogurt

But, the primary component of milk, the protein casein, isn't just a tasty source of sustenance-you can also use it to replace petroleum-based synthetic plastics for a more sustainable alternative.

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Lactips, a French startup founded by Marie-Hélène Gramatikoff and Frederic Prochazka in 2014, has developed a method for turning casein into a water-soluble film that can replace traditional plastic films. The Lactips film is biodegradable, leaving no harmful substances, and in addition to being completely compostable, it makes use of dairy waste, diverting the inedible milk byproduct from landfills.

After starting Lactips, it did not take long to secure millions of Euros in funding, from investors such as the European Union’s Horizon 2020 fund, BASF Ventures, Demeter, BNP Paribas, and Crédit Agricole Loire Haute-Loire, or winning several awards for their innovative technology. Using non-edible casein waste, the soluble properties of the polyvinyl alcohol alternative make it ideal for single-dose detergent pouches. Better still, it can get utilized in agricultural applications, where you can disperse the pouched products on the ground where they will eventually dissolve.

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Editorial photograph

The bio-based and sustainable casein-based material also provides a functional gas barrier, and if made from edible dairy waste, it can get utilized in applications like food cling or wrappers-you can also print on the Lactips’ film. The ideal properties of the material, in addition to its market feasibility, caught the attention of BASF beyond investment, as the two firms signed a distribution deal last summer.

The use of casein to make plastic isn’t anything new. Galalith, also known as Aladdinite and Erinoid, was a common material used to make buttons and costume jewelry at the turn of the 20th century. Made by mixing casein with formaldehyde, French chemist Auguste Trillat invented the process, and although you could not mold this casein-based material, it was cheaper than contemporary plastics and ivory. Eventually, it fell out of favor, as World War 2 made dairy-derived casein more difficult to source. 

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By the end of the war, oil-based plastics would dominate the market, replacing Galalith with cheaper alternatives.

Of course, petroleum-based synthetic plastics will continue to come at a steep cost, even if it’s not financial. The unaccounted environmental damages from extracting the non-renewable dino juice, transporting it, and processing it, contribute to harming the planet in many ways, from climate change and disrupting natural habitats to destroying the landscape. But the finished product-plastic-also ends up in the environment, taking hundreds of years to break down, if at all. 

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The need for organic, safe, and renewable sources of base materials is critical, and casein-based substitutes like Lactips show promise in replacing destructive petro-plastics in common applications like food cling and pharmaceuticals.

Now, if we could just get almonds to lactate...

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