April 13, 2024

Plastics that don’t create microplastics • Earth.com

Biodegradable plastics represent a monumental step toward solving the persistent problem of plastic pollution, according to research from the University of California San Diego in collaboration with Algenesis.

The study reveals that plant polymers can completely biodegrade to microplastics in less than seven months. This discovery not only addresses the pressing environmental challenge posed by traditional plastics and microplastics, but also signals a new era of environmentally friendly materials.

A growing environmental and health crisis

The widespread nature of microplastics, tiny fragments that break off from everyday plastic products, has become a pressing concern. These nearly indestructible particles have infiltrated our oceans, soil and, alarmingly, our bodies. They have been found in arteries, lungs and even placentas.

Given their longevity (it takes between 100 and 1,000 years to decompose), microplastics contribute to increased pollution levels, posing significant risks to both the planet and human health. This harsh reality highlights the urgency of finding sustainable alternatives to traditional plastics.

An innovation in biodegradable plastics

“An attractive solution to mitigate the environmental impact of microplastics is to develop plastics that do not generate persistent microplastics as part of their normal life cycle,” the study authors wrote.

Even plastics that are properly collected and recycled generate microplastics as part of normal wear and tear from daily use or as a consequence of recycling or washing processes.

Therefore, to prevent the accumulation of microplastics, new plastic materials must be developed that are completely biodegradable, so that any particles generated from these products degrade quickly in the environment.

Researchers have developed an innovative solution: algae-based polymers that completely biodegrade, including microplastics, in less than seven months.

Understanding the implications of microplastics

The research was led by Professor Michael Burkart and Professor Robert Pomeroy, both co-founders of Algenesis.

We are just beginning to understand the implications of microplastics. We have still only scratched the surface of understanding environmental and health impacts,” said Professor Burkart.

“We are trying to find substitutes for materials that already exist and ensure that these substitutes are biodegradable at the end of their useful life rather than being deposited in the environment. This is not easy.”

Professor Pomeroy shared the team’s vision of creating a fully biodegradable plastic material. “When we created these algae-based polymers about six years ago, our intention was always for them to be completely biodegradable,” Pomeroy said.

“We had a lot of data that suggested our material was disappearing into the compost, but this is the first time we’ve measured it at the microparticle level.”

Tests confirm that plastics are biodegradable

The researchers subjected their algae-based polymer to rigorous testing to validate its biodegradability. They used respirometry, water flotation, and gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GCMS), along with scanning electron microscopy.

These tests confirmed the material’s remarkable biodegradation capacity, a stark contrast to traditional petroleum-based plastics, which showed negligible decomposition under similar conditions.

“We demonstrate that prototype products made from these materials are biodegradable under home composting conditions,” the researchers wrote.

“The generation of microplastics is an inevitable consequence of plastic use and mitigating the persistence of these particles through the adoption of biodegradable material alternatives is a viable option for a future green circular economy.”

Envisioning a plastic-free future

Study co-author Professor Stephen Mayfield noted that this material represents the first plastic that has been proven not to generate microplastics during use.

“This material is the first plastic demonstrated no we create microplastics as we use them,” said Professor Mayfield. “This is more than just a sustainable solution to the end of the product lifecycle and our overflowing landfills. In fact, this is plastic that is no It will make us sick.”

Crucial moment in the fight against plastic pollution

The journey to commercial viability involves integrating this new biodegradable material into existing production infrastructure designed for conventional plastics.

Algenesis has already moved in this direction, partnering with companies like Trelleborg and RhinoShield to explore applications in coated fabrics and cell phone cases, respectively.

The journey to develop this alternative to biodegradable plastic has not been without skepticism and challenges.

“When we started this work, we were told it was impossible,” said Professor Burkart. “Now we see a different reality. There is a lot of work to be done, but we want to give people hope. This It is possible.”

The research marks a crucial moment in the fight against plastic pollution. By offering a viable, biodegradable alternative to traditional plastics, this study not only contributes to environmental conservation, but also paves the way for a healthier and more sustainable future.

What makes plastics and materials biodegradable?

In today’s environmentally conscious world, the term “biodegradable” has become synonymous with sustainability, signaling the ability of a material to return to nature and reduce its impact on the planet.

Biodegradable materials, including certain types of plastics, play a crucial role in mitigating pollution and promoting a more sustainable life cycle for products.

Chemical composition

The chemical composition of a material plays a significant role in its biodegradability. Naturally derived substances such as cellulose, starch and lactic acid form the basis of many biodegradable materials.

Microorganisms can easily break down these natural components. In contrast, synthetic plastics often consist of long, stable chains of polymers that resist biodegradation.

Molecular structure affects degradation

The arrangement and bonds between a material’s molecules also impact its biodegradability. Simpler, more easily decomposed structures are more likely to undergo biodegradation.

Materials with complex molecular structures are more challenging for microorganisms to consume and decompose.

Microorganisms and biodegradable plastics

Biodegradation depends on the presence of microorganisms, such as bacteria and fungi, to consume and decompose materials. The availability of these tiny decomposers in the disposal environment is essential. Without them, even potentially biodegradable materials can persist for long periods.

Environmental conditions influence decomposition

Temperature, humidity, oxygen levels and pH all play a role in the rate of biodegradation. Different materials and microorganisms thrive under different conditions. Ensuring optimal environmental factors can significantly speed up the decomposition process.

Additives improve biodegradability

Manufacturers can improve the biodegradability of some plastics by incorporating additives that promote degradation. Substances such as starch or cellulose help microorganisms break down the material more easily. These additives provide a starting point for decomposition and make the plastic more attractive to microbes.

Surface area speeds up the process

Materials with greater surface area are more accessible to microorganisms, leading to faster biodegradation. Smaller particles or thin films tend to degrade more quickly than larger, thicker items. Increasing the surface area of ​​a material can help speed its decomposition.

The bottom line in biodegradable plastics

While biodegradable materials offer a more environmentally friendly alternative to traditional plastics, it is crucial to understand that they may not break down quickly or completely in all environments.

Landfills, for example, often lack the oxygen and moisture necessary for efficient biodegradation. Proper composting conditions are essential to ensure biodegradable materials do what they promise.

By understanding the science behind biodegradability, we can make informed choices about the materials we use and how we dispose of them. Opting for biodegradable alternatives and ensuring suitable disposal conditions can help reduce our environmental impact and contribute to a greener future.

The study is published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.

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