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Bioplastics as an Alternative to Single-Use Plastic Waste

The average American uses 365 pieces of single-use plastic each year. Researchers are examining the possibility of plastics engineered from plant-based materials to minimize the mass amounts of non-biodegradable plastics hitting our landfills.

Jonathan Pierron

November 17, 2022

4 Min Read
Bioplastics as an Alternative to Single-Use Plastic Waste
Plastics, in addition to clogging streams and rivers, are becoming a major contaminant issue for cotton. A major culprit is plastic bags from supermarkets and other retailers.fotosr/iStock/Getty Images

The average American uses 365 articles of single-use plastic each year according to research done by National Geographic.

These items, products like plastic utensils, cups, and bags, are typically used once before they are sent to landfills to take up space.

In the United States alone, about 100 billion plastic bags are used each year, with estimations made that the world uses about 4 trillion annually, Waste Management reports. In many ways, the use of these non-biodegradable materials, such as single-use plastic bags, has become too incorporated into modern life to simply stop using.

Though eight states in the U.S. have officially banned single-use plastic bags, and bans across the country on other plastic products such as straws, plates, cups and bottles have proven successful in reducing plastic waste, others have a different perspective on how to eliminate the massive amounts of plastic waste single-use plastic products creates.

“It takes 1,000 years for a plastic bag to degrade in a landfill. Unfortunately, the bags don't break down completely but instead photo-degrade, becoming microplastics that absorb toxins and continue to pollute the environment,” a report from the Center for Biological Diversity states.

Deciding to tackle this issue from another angle, some scientists are investigating the possibility of creating a material that can be substituted for plastic in one-use products.

The goal of this approach is the create a material capable of decomposing so that it can be composted or broken up naturally into landfills without causing harm to its surroundings.

With multiple approaches to this, a variety of scientists and other researchers have begun exploring the possibility of producing a plastic replacement made up of plant-based materials.

In recent years several notable studies have discovered materials like this with potential.

In June 2021, Nature Communications published research completed by researchers from the Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry at the University of Cambridge titled “Controlled self-assembly of plant proteins into high-performance multifunctional nanostructured films.”

The report details the researcher's approach to creating plant-based films similar enough to those produced with our current petroleum-based systems.

Though successfully producing a material similar to plastic, the report describes the researcher's continuous encounters with one hurdle; scaleability.

“Here, we demonstrate a scalable approach for generating mechanically robust plant-based films on a meter-scale through controlled nanometre-scale self-assembly of water-insoluble plant proteins.

Ultimately discovering their production methods can be replicated with the use of ultrasonication, the possibility of upscaling their work to production levels capable of replacing the millions of single-use plastics becomes more possible.

“Also, ultrasonication is widely used in food processing and thus practically available at industrial scale,” the report denotes.

This method is not the only to come up with a possible solution, however.

In 2022 two professors in the Department of Forest Biomaterials at North Carolina State University named Lokendra Pal and Lucian Lucia identified a way to convert leftover sawdust powder and agro-residues into a material similar to styrofoam.

This plastic replacement has the potential to replace styrofoam and other plastics often used in the food industry.

The two professors are currently conducting pilot trials to test the material's potential for commercialization.

This plastic substitute demonstrates one thing that others do not; a lower amount of raw materials needed to produce it.

“These alternatives, however, require a lot of water, energy, and chemicals to produce and therefore cost nearly 10 times as much as the material developed by Pal and Lucia,” Andrew Moore of North Carolina State University writes.

Each of the two prior mentioned methods have their own pros and cons, one single solution to the overproduction and consumption of single-use plastic has not been agreed upon.

An even more recent study by researchers at the University of British Columbia has gained some traction and media attention as a promising option.

The wood-based material is capable of replicating transparent plastic, garnering excitement from the public as a material truly similar to the plastic bottles and cups we are accustomed to. With a legion of other strengths, the material's success is a demonstration of the possibility to meet all of the criteria exhibited by the plastics we currently use.

“The prepared cellulose film shows high transmittance, good thermal stability (Tmax of 350 °C), high mechanical strength (99.7 MPa tensile strength and 5.7 GPa Young’s modulus), good underwater structural stability (17.1 MPa tensile strength after being immersed in water for 30 days), as well as excellent biodegradability (completely degrades in 19 days when buried in soil).”

The material is evidence of the true potential these plant-based alternatives have to eliminate the unnecessary waste of plastic cups, straws, bottles, plates, and bags.

Over and over again we are seeing researchers and scientists discovering materials capable of withstanding the same conditions of the plastics currently on the market.

With tons of potential mitigation tactics and solutions to the rising plastic use across the globe, utilizing biological materials to create substitutes has gained some traction.

About the Author(s)

Jonathan Pierron

Associate Editor & Content Producer

John Pierron is the associate editor of Waste360. He graduated from Ohio University.

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