Replacing Plastic: A Biodegradable Alternative
The Plastic Problem
Plastic consumption poses a great environmental problem to the modern world, much of which stems from single use plastics for food and product packaging. Last year, the world produced 78 million tons of plastic, and only 14% of those plastics saw any kind of recycling with 2% being recycled for use in a similar-quality application. Furthermore, these plastics, recycled or not, take up to and over 450 years to degrade, posing environmental risks that can last up to half of a millennium.
There have been significant attempts to mitigate this tremendous plastic consumption, such as developing biodegradable alternatives that do not use plastic in their construction. However, current attempts to develop eco-friendly alternatives for food packaging products have significant drawbacks; molded pulps, for instance, experience problems with structural strength, especially when they are exposed to damp or wet conditions, thus limiting their effectiveness in many applications. Even biodegradable plastic can take up to 30 years to decompose, which is marginally better than their petroleum-based counterparts, but still leaves much to be desired.
Northeastern Professor Hongli Zhu and her associates have developed a new eco-friendly biodegradable food packaging alternative that takes advantage of the structural properties of bamboo fiber and sucrose to provide a mechanically strong material capable of degrading in a mere 60 days. Unlike existing biodegradable materials, Zhu’s material retains its mechanical strength in wet environments, making it a more viable solution than alternatives currently in circulation.
Zhu’s design repurposes excess sucrose produced in sugar-related manufacturing and recycles it to produce her novel material. Combined with bamboo, a plant which can grow up to three feet in a single day and features strong mechanical properties, her design utilizes highly available materials, thus reducing manufacturing costs and providing ample material to keep up with the large quantity of plastic products put into circulation each year. Zhu says that we can use the existing molding machine for industrial manufacturing, making the transition from plastic to her alternative relatively cheap for manufacturers.
Like Plastic, But Better
Despite its biodegradable nature, the material retains a long shelf-life and does not decompose until it is exposed to an outdoor environment. “We just bury it under the soil,” says Zhu. “After two months, it’s gone.” In the soil, there are natural enzymes that decompose the elements in the biodegradable material, according to Zhu. However, when stored indoors, the material is very stable. For example, books are made from cellulose, and it is well known that books can be kept for a long time; Zhu’s material exhibits a similar property.
While Zhu has set her sights on food packaging, she says that her novel material can also be used to replace many other single-use plastics as well. The material can be easily molded to fit many types of products, and due to its durability, can be used for many other packages as well, such as what one might find on Amazon or at Walmart.
An Urgent Matter
Given the tremendous problem plastic waste poses to the environment and green initiatives being taken across the world by political and commercial organizations alike, Zhu’s plastic alternative offers a much-needed solution to the tremendous amount of waste produced each year. “We need to tackle the plastic pollution problem as soon as we can,” says Zhu. “Not after 5 years or 10 years, should be now, with a scalable and cost effective way.” With her novel biodegradable material, her tech may be crucial in making single-use plastics a part of the past.
Written by Joseph Burns
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