Photos via Imperial College London and psyberartist
Compostable plastic. For those familiar with plant-based plastics such as PLA, made from corn, you're probably rolling your eyes. Usually the terms "compostable" or "biodegradable" are stretched to the breaking point when it comes to these plastics. While manufacturers say PLA is biodegradeable, it's not like you can toss it in your compost pile and expect it to decompose in any sort of reasonable time frame. However, that could change. Researchers at Imperial College London have found a way to use the sugars found in fast-growing trees and grasses for creating a polymer that can be used to make plastic - reportedly into a plastic you can toss in the compost bin without thought. According to the Telegraph, the new material would break down in a matter of months, and the new plastics made from sugar could be in stores as quickly as five years from now.
Worldwide production of plastic exceeds 150 million tons per year, with about 99% of it being made from fossil fuels. While corn-based plastic is touted as a greener alterative, it still takes quite a bit of fossil fuel to raise the corn, process it into plastic, and eventually recycle it since it does not, in fact, easily biodegrade in natural systems. Could this new sugar-based plastic be a solution? Maybe...
The researchers have figured out how to extract a polymer from glucose found in trees and grasses. The question of course, is how using land to grow non-food crops for plastic could impact ecosystems. We've already found that doing so with corn is highly controversial. However, the scientists believe that since these plants are not needed for food, nor do they require much land to make a large amount of plastic, it would be less controversial than crops like those used for ethanol. Additionally, the process for manufacturing plastic is less energy intensive.
The article at Imperial College London states, "The degradable polymer is made from sugars produced from the breakdown of lignocellulosic biomass, which comes from non-food crops such as fast-growing trees and grasses, or renewable biomass from agricultural or food waste."
Led by Dr Charlotte Williams, the researchers worked for 3.5 years to figure out a yield of 80% in a low energy and low water-use process. The new plastics degrade quickly into harmless material, which means it can go in the compost bin at home.
As well as with consumer items like food containers, the team hopes to use the new plastic in tissue regeneration and drug delivery.
It's an interesting new development and we'll keep you updated.
More on Plant-Based Plastics
How Corn Plastics Are Made, And Why We Still Aren't Thrilled
Plastic Politics and Sweden's Bio-Bag Backlash
Is New Biodegradable Plastic the Answer?
Compostable and "Biodegradable" Plastics Provide False Sense of Responsibility