An eco-friendly floor finish – from cows

Polyurethane substitute is made from eco-friendly whey, a byproduct of cheesemaking.

R. Norman Matheny / The Christian Science Monitor / File
Polyurethane substitute is made from eco-friendly whey, a byproduct of cheesemaking. A file photo of a dairy cow herd, headed for a pasture in Wisconsin.

Andrew Meyer believes that he's found a "whey" to help Vermont's dairy farms by turning a cheesemaking byproduct into an eco-friendly wood finish.

Like other water-based substitutes for traditional (oil-based) polyurethane, Vermont Natural Coatings' (VNC) PolyWhey dries fast and emits no toxic fumes. It releases very low levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), about one-quarter the amount released by some polyurethanes. Unlike other waterborne finishes, its hardness makes it a viable option for professional-grade work, experts say.

Building Green, a private publisher that researches green building products and practices for contractors and policymakers, named PolyWhey one of its Top 10 products in 2008. "I'm not aware of any other clear coating that combines its high level of performance with such low VOC emissions," says Building Green's Alex Wilson. It costs about 2 cents per square foot more than comparable wood finishes.

The whey-based coating has been applied with good results on the floor of a yoga center in Berkeley, Calif., woodwork in a Montessori school in New York City, and in the five-child, three-dog home of contractor Jason Lawrence of Stewartstown, N.H., who says it's the equal of any oil-based product he's ever used.

Mr. Meyer originally set out to save Vermont's farms through legislation. He went to Washington to work on milk-pricing policy after graduating from the University of Vermont (UVM) in 1992. But after a few years it became clear to him that "Vermont always missed out. Its needs were different than the national agenda."

Meanwhile, Ming Guo, a functional food scientist at UVM, was working with whey proteins to develop new applications. When Dr. Guo discovered the unusual strength of these proteins, he realized the 90 billion pounds of cheese whey produced in the United States each year might be put to better use. "It's a great resource," Guo says, "natural and renewable. And it can reduce the use of petroleum-based compounds."

Guo conceived of a wood finish made with whey. UVM sought federal funds to develop it. Excited by the possibilities and eager to return to Vermont, Meyer left Washington in 2004 to work with Guo.

Meyer prizes the early success of VNC because of its potential to help the local farm-based economy. "The desire was to help Vermont," he says. He and like-minded entrepreneurs have formed the nonprofit Center for an Agricultural Economy to collaborate and share infrastructure in an agriculture-based eco-industrial park.

Meyer and Guo are developing exterior and tinted whey-based finishes, and a vegetable-based, zero-VOC cleaner for wood floors and decks.

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