A New Look at Bio-degradable Plastic

bio-degradable plastic
By Bob Hanson

It’s time to take a new look at bio-degradable plastic. The news these days is full of articles about the evils of plastic.  Plastic threatens the oceans and landfills, health concerns, litter problems, difficulties in recycling, waste of fossil fuels, etc. On the other hand, we have become hooked, and ever more dependent, on plastic.  Consider the ball point pens we use, the combs we pull through our hair and dozens of other items we use daily.  Plastic is ubiquitous and has many uses.

Certainly, we should use less and recycle more. But wouldn’t it be sweet if we developed a plastic that would bio-degrade in less than a 1,000 years? I was happy to discover scientists are working on that. Someday your table scraps could turn from trash to plastic bottles, medical equipment and other beneficial objects, and when they are discarded, they can return to the soil.

Bio-degradable Plastic

bio-degradable plastic
Bio-degradable utensils and straws are already available and can be recycled

Leading the way on this effort is a Canadian woman, Luna Yu. Her Toronto-based business is converting low-value waste into high-value materials. Soon your table scraps may turn into all sorts of plastic items, which will be compostable when discarded.

This new second-generation plastic is called polyhydroxyalkanoates (don’t ask me how to pronounce that!) Let’s just call it PHA.

The scientists who are perfecting the process have developed bacteria, which can break down the food waste into small carbon-building blocks. PHA-assembling bacteria eat the carbon and store bioplastic granules in their cells. Scientists chemically extract the bioplastic from the bacteria. Some other companies are making the new plastic from methanol, sugar and oil. All of these new ventures developing bio-degradable plastic are finding the process more expensive than making it from petroleum. Yet, if consumers are willing to pay a bit more and insist plastic items be bio-degradable, demand will go up and prices will come down.

Europe Leads the Way (again)

bio-degradable plastic
While convenient, single use plastics are deadly contaminants

European countries are leading the way in ridding themselves of single-use plastics. European parliament committees have approved banning a number of single-use plastic products by 2021. Scientists are developing a number of other bio-degradable plastics. Unfortunately, so far only PHA will break-down in the ocean water, where a great deal of plastic ends up.

Bio-plastics currently only constitute about 1% of the 320 million tons of plastic produced each year, but this percentage is certain to rise. We can help speed up the conversion by working with legislative bodies and pressuring retailers to eliminate non-biodegradable plastic packaging and outlaw plastic items, such as drinking straws and eating utensils, unless they are bio-degradable.

California has always been a leader in environmental legislation, and we should be on this issue.

More research and development is necessary.  Moreover, the Ecology Center cautions us not to get ahead of ourselves.

If this, or other environmental, issues interest you, such as taking a new look at bio-degradable plastic, please consider joining Sustainable Rossmoor.

Courtesy of the Rossmoor News, Nov 13, 2019.  Email Bob Hanson at doctoroutdoors@comcast.net.

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