HUGO, Minn. – In ninth grade, Paige Stuber found an interesting use for her favorite beverage. After learning milk can be turned into plastic, Stuber conducted research, which eventually led to Stuber receiving a national FFA award.
    “It was insane to find out plastic made from milk has been around 100 years, but with the introduction of petroleum-based plastics, we strayed away from that,” Stuber said.
    Because of this find, milk became the subject of three research projects she conducted while in high school while attending Academy for Sciences and Agriculture in Vadnais Heights, Minnesota. It also earned her the top recognition in the country for the Agriscience Research Integrated Systems Proficiency Award during the virtual 93rd National FFA Convention and Expo Oct. 27-29.
    “When I found out, I started crying because no matter what happened I was super thankful to be a national finalist,” Stuber said. “To be announced a winner for my first time being a national finalist for something like this is mind boggling.”
    Stuber, the daughter of Sharyl Stuber, is now in her freshman year at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Originally from Hugo, Stuber grew up in an urban setting with very little agricultural background. Her exposure to agriculture came when she started attending AFSA for high school.
    “I took an intro to ag class, and learning about agriculture and FFA was fun,” she said.
    When it came time to think of a topic for her first agriscience fair project in ninth grade, Stuber was stumped.
    “My mom said focus on something you like so I decided to focus my research on milk, especially after finding out you can turn my favorite beverage into casein bioplastic, which was really cool,” Stuber said. “It’s definitely easier to focus on something you enjoy. I think it makes the research process easier when you’re able to connect something you enjoy to research.”
    That first project compared the yield of plastic from goat milk versus cow milk.
    “While researching milk bioplastic, I found it’s the casein protein in mammal milk that turns milk into plastic,” Stuber said.
    She tested five temperatures, heating the milk and mixing it with vinegar to make plastic curd-like discs. Then, Stuber weighed the discs to determine which temperature and which milk produced the most plastic by weight. Cow’s milk came out on top.  
    The project led to a second-place award at the Minnesota State FFA Convention that year.
    “I decided to keep going, pushing myself further and beefing up my research to make it better,” Stuber said.
    For her agriscience fair project the following year, Stuber tested if the pasteurization method had an impact on the casein bioplastic. Stuber used raw milk along with three types of pasteurized milk: low temperature; high temperature, short time; and ultra high temperature. Like her previous project, Stuber heated the milk to five pre-selected temperatures and added vinegar in order to create over 100 casein bioplastic samples.
    “The kitchen stunk for awhile,” she said. “Warm milk and vinegar is kind of smelly.”
    Stuber found the low temperature pasteurized milk produced the greatest yield. The project led to a fourth-place finish in the National FFA Agriscience Fair competition.
    “I was able to talk with a bunch of people across the U.S. about my research,” Stuber said. “I had so many conversations just by asking, ‘Did you know milk can be turned into plastic?’ Not many people knew about it so getting to watch people’s reactions and being able to inform them about this was a fun experience.”
    While her third project took a different direction, it was influenced by her previous research.
    “While I was at the store and looking for different pasteurization methods in the dairy section, there were a lot of varieties of milk plant-based milk alternatives,” Stuber said. “It was overwhelming and confusing.”
    Stuber was also frustrated that plant-based milk alternatives were in the section labeled milk.
    “In my opinion, they aren’t really milk,” she said. “It’s more like white plant juice.”
    After forming her own opinions, she wanted to know what others thought. For her final project, Stuber created a survey about people’s opinions about the labeling and marketing of both mammal milk and plant-based milk alternatives. Stuber surveyed 320 people aged 14 and up ranging from general public, fellow students, people in the dairy industry and family members.
    “This one was my most technical project with the statistical analysis,” Stuber said.
    For this project, Stuber tested five hypotheses, and the results were varied. They showed Stuber was not the only one confused about the labeling of milk alternatives.
    “Throughout my projects, I gained a lot of skills, both research skills and soft skills,” Stuber said. “FFA has helped me discover and ignite my passion for agriculture, and helped me figure out what I want to do in life.”
    In college, Stuber is studying agriculture education, and agriculture communications and marketing with the goal to become an agriculture teacher and FFA advisor.
    While Stuber has no plans to continue her research at this time, she hopes her work might inspire other young people to continue talking about casein bioplastics as an alternative to the petroleum-based versions.
    “I know researchers and scientists are trying to find a greener solution that will actually biodegrade,” Stuber said. “I definitely see casein bioplastic as becoming a viable option. As long as we have cows and milk, we have a source to make biodegradable plastic.”