Harvard Researchers Discover New Bioplastic Solution [video]

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Sea bird with stomach full of plastic.

Sea bird with stomach full of plastic.

Plastic is commonly known today as an extreme threat to our habitat for many reasons. It’s a simple durable synthetic solution that is now integrated into almost every part of our lives, most uses being disposable. The challenge is that plastic is not biodegradable and using it in a disposable manner is piling up fast. It may take up to a thousand years for one plastic bottle to start breaking down if it ever does at all. A misconception among many people is that plastic can be recycled, however this is not true. It is only down-cycled. This means it can only be broken down for alternate uses such as doormats and textiles, but at some point will still enter the landfill. Plastic chemicals are entering food supplies and impacting numerous species as an overwhelming amount of wildlife is eating small particles of plastic and feeding it to their young. In 2013 a sperm whale was found dead with 40 pounds of plastic in it’s stomach.

Some quick facts to give some additional perspective:

  1. 32 million tons of plastic waste were generated in 2012, representing 12.7 percent of total MSW.”
  2. “In 2012, the United States generated almost 14 million tons of plastics as containers and packaging, about 11 million tons as durable goods such as appliances, and almost 7 million tons as nondurable goods, such as plates and cups.”
  3. “It took approximately 17 million barrels of oil equivalent to produce plastic for bottled water consumed by Americans in 2006—enough energy to fuel more than 1 million American cars and light trucks for a year.” Now, that was 2006 and consumption has been compounding year over year so you can only imagine that the number of barrels used today is much greater.
  4. “Each bottle requires 3 liters of fresh water to make 1 plastic water bottle.” It’s estimated that 25% of bottled water is tap water put in a bottle and sold to you. Lastly, most tap is more regulated and cleaner. Bottled water is managed by the FDA and tap is regulated by the EPA who have stricter guidelines. Since the EPA identified the issues with the bottled water safety guidelines they have been improved, however.
  5. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or garbage vortex, is one of 5 large gyres in our oceans. The Pacific Garbage Patch is said to be twice the size of Texas.
Shrimp shells

Shrimp shells

Let’s get to the good news. Scientists around the world are looking for alternate solutions as the plastic is piling up. The key word was bioplastics which is defined as durable substances made from renewable cellulose, a plant-based polysaccharide. However, plant-based bioplastics do not fully breakdown and are not sustainable for mass production. Researches at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering have introduced a new form of bioplastic isolated from shrimp shells which is made from chitosan, or chitin, the second most abundant organic material on earth. Unlike other bioplastics this solution poses no threat to the environment. Chitin is a tough polysaccharide, the main ingredient in the shells of crustaceans, the armorlike cuticles of insects, and even the flexible wings of butterflies.

According to Phys.org, “The Wyss Institute team, led by Postdoctoral Fellow Javier Fernandez, Ph.D., and Founding Director Don Ingber, M.D., Ph.D., developed a new way to process the material so that it can be used to fabricate large, 3D objects with complex shapes using traditional casting or injection molding manufacturing techniques. What’s more, their chitosan bioplastic breaks down when returned to the environment within about two weeks, and it releases rich nutrients that efficiently support plant growth.

Plastic made from shrimp shells

Plastic made from shrimp shells

“There is an urgent need in many industries for sustainable materials that can be mass produced,” Wyss Director Donald E. Ingber said in March. “Our scalable manufacturing method shows that chitosan, which is readily available and inexpensive, can serve as a viable bioplastic that could potentially be used instead of conventional plastics for numerous industrial applications.”

The potential here is very exciting as we are in extreme need of a solution today. This option is an environmentally safe alternative to synthetic plastic and could be a substitute for many mass produced goods such as trash bags, packaging, and diapers.

As mentioned earlier in the article, once disposed of this new plastic breaks down in just weeks as compared to the synthetic plastic (polyethylene) which takes more than a thousand years if ever. Actually, the researchers at Harvard grew black-eyes pea plant in soil enriched with its chitosan bioplastic. It encourages plant growth! This is like the natural cycle of nature, developments that naturally return to earth in a useful manner.

We can all help play our own part by becoming more aware of our plastic use.

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