We are producing and consuming plastic at an exponential rate, and at this point we are producing more plastic than ever before. The big problem with plastic is that it does not break down, in fact, according to GreenPeace – every piece of plastic that has ever been created still exists somewhere on the planet. That’s an alarming statistic, especially when you consider every plastic bottle, bag, wrapper, toothbrush, etc. By 2050 our oceans might contain more plastic than fish, and 80% of our tap water may contain microplastics if we don’t do something to change our current habits.
Fortunately, this problem is garnering a lot of attention and there are many initiatives designed to cut back, limit, and provide alternatives to our plastic consumption. The New Plastics Economy, for example, is aiming to reverse this problem by encouraging the plastics industry to design reusable plastic products. Others are looking to change the very nature of plastic altogether, and are searching for more alternatives.
Have We Found A Solution?
Scientists from the Centre of Sustainable Chemical Technologies (CSCT) at the University of Bath have now successfully created a plastic that does not use harmful chemicals during production, which creates pollution. This new method is completely biodegradable, and it’s made from sugar and carbon dioxide, nothing more. CO2 is added to naturally occurring sugar from thymidine at very low pressures at room temperature.
This process creates a polycarbonate, which is a tough type of plastic that can make beverage containers, lenses for glasses, DVD’s, CD’s (in case anyone still uses those things) and scratch resistant screens for cell phones. Typically, polycarbonates are made from petroleum and the chemicals that come from it. These plastics DO NOT biodegrade and we have been producing and consuming them at an alarming rate since the invention of plastics derived from fossil fuels in 1907.
It wasn’t until WW1 that plastics began being produced, plastic changed many aspects of our lives and even though it seems shocking to us now, it seems no one really thought about the potential long term effects of this exponential plastic production, where it would all end up and whether or not it would harm our environment.
Biodegradable Plastics Do Exist
Unlike the petroleum-based polycarbonates we’ve been using for decade, the plastics created by the team at the University of Bath can break down naturally. We have seen a few other examples of biodegradable plastics, but these attempts have been harshly criticized. As pointed out by the UN Environment Programmes chief scientist, Jacqueline McGlade, they were only a “false solution” because many of these alternatives would only biodegrade at temperatures of 50C. This isn’t exactly a common temperature in most parts of the world.
The plastic created by the scientists from the University of Bath do not need high temperatures to degrade. Instead, they can be completely degraded back into sugar and CO2 just by the enzymes which are found naturally in the bacteria located within the soil.
Another plus to this new plastic is that it is completely void of any and all toxic chemicals, so the production does not create any pollution. Also, most polycarbonates contain bisophenol-A, which you might know by the name of ‘BPA,’ it’s a known toxin and hormone disruptor that’s often used in drink and food containers. At certain temperatures, these toxins can also leak into our foods that we store in them.
What About Other Biodegradable Plastics Made From Sugar?
There have been other attempts, and successful ones in terms of their ability to biodegrade, but the problem with these is that the manufacturing process contains the use of a highly toxic chemical called phosgene. Phosgene was actually used as a weapon of chemical warfare during World War 1 and was responsible for 85% of the deaths caused by gas attacks.
According to the scientists of this newly developed plastic from the University of Bath,
“Our process uses carbon dioxide instead of the highly toxic chemical phosgene, and produces a plastic that is free from BPA,” said Dr Antoine Buchard, Whorrod Research Fellow at the University of Bath’s Department of Chemistry.
“So not only is the plastic safer, but the manufacture process is cleaner too.”
By selecting thymidine as the sugar used to create the biodegradable plastic, the university’s scientists may also have found a medical application for it.
“Thymidine is one of the units that makes up DNA,” said Georgina Gregory, a PhD student and lead author of the research paper.
“Because it is already present in the body, it means this plastic will be bio-compatible and can be used safely for tissue engineering applications.”