Chemical That Gives Pine Trees Their Smell Could Be Used to Make Renewable Plastic

©. Szczygly

Plastic is an incredibly useful and versatile material, but it's also become a plague to the earth because of the large amount of disposable plastics thrown away every day that wind up in landfills and our oceans. On top of that, its made from petroleum, a fossil fuel, which adds to its environmental impact.

More environmentally-friendly plastics have been made like those made from corn or sugar cane, but they often are still made with some crude oil derivatives. A new discovery from the University of Bath has shown that a waste product from pine trees could lead to a fully renewable plastic that is free from fossil fuels.

Pinene is the chemical that makes pine trees smell like, well, pine trees and it also happens to be a waste product of the paper industry. Researchers found that degradable polyesters, which are made from corn or sugar cane and need to be mixed with a caprolactone, made with crude oil, to be more flexible, could be mixed with pinene instead.

The resulting plastic is flexible and strong and completely devoid of fossil fuels.

“We’re not talking about recycling old Christmas trees into plastics, but rather using a waste product from industry that would otherwise be thrown away, and turning it into something useful," said Helena Quilter, a PhD student at the university's Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies. “So if we can make a plastic from sustainable sources, it could make a big difference to the environment.”

The researchers see the new plastic as a replacement for single use plastics and a range of medical uses like implants. They are also working on these types of plastics using limonene, a waste chemical from the citrus industry.

While this new plastic is sustainable in its making, the university does not say whether it will be biodegradable.