Could biodegradable 'bioplastic' save us from plastic pollution?

·Contributor
·3 min read
Marine pollution, mainly made up of plastic bottles and polystyrene floating in Hinnavaru Harbour, Maldives, Indian Ocean.
Plastic pollution floating in Hinnavaru Harbour in the Maldives. (Getty)

Every year, more than eight million tons of plastic end up in the oceans, threatening life around the world, but could biodegradable ‘bioplastic’ offer a solution?

A Chinese research team has found a new method for producing bioplastics made from proteins which are biodegradable and biocompatible as well as being easily processed.

The research was published in the journal Angewandte Chemie.

There’s a great deal of interest in ‘bioplastics’ but so far, bioplastics based on natural materials like starch, or synthetic biomaterials like polylactic acid, have failed to deliver, showing off inadequate durability, biocompatibility, and/or biodegradability in most cases.

Creating some bioplastics often require complex, energy-intensive processing methods and toxic chemicals.

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A team led by Jingjing Li and Yawei Liu (Chinese Academy of Sciences, Changchun, China), as well as Bo Wei (First Medical Center of PLA General Hospital) have created new bioplastics whose properties can be ‘tweaked’ as needed.

The researchers developed two lysine-rich proteins and produced them in bacterial cultures, creating bioplastics which can either be soft or hard.

The team also used wet spinning to produce biofibres that are as strong as some biotechnological spider silks.

The researchers believe it could be possible to make toys with this new, nontoxic bioplastic that can be dyed with food coloring.

This material could also be used to seal wounds, the researchers believe.

Plastic pollution now affects almost all species in the world’s oceans, and is set to quadruple by 2050, a report by wildlife group WWF found last week.

The report found that 88% of marine species, from plankton to whales are affected by contamination.

Pollution hotspots such as the Mediterranean, the East China and Yellow Seas, and the Arctic sea ice are already exceeding dangerous thresholds of microplastics.

The report commissioned by the WWF reviewed 2,590 studies and found that by the end of the century marine areas more than two and a half times the size of Greenland could exceed ecologically dangerous thresholds of microplastic concentration.

The amount of marine microplastic could increase 50-fold by then, the wildlife charity warned.

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This is based on projections that plastic production is expected to more than double by 2040 resulting in plastic debris in the ocean quadrupling by 2050.

Heike Vesper, director marine programme of WWF Germany, said: "All evidence suggests that plastic contamination of the ocean is irreversible. Once distributed in the ocean, plastic waste is almost impossible to retrieve.

“It steadily degrades and so the concentration of micro- and nanoplastics will continue to increase for decades. Targeting the causes of plastic pollution is far more effective than cleaning up afterwards.

“If governments, industry and society act in unison now, they can still limit the plastic crisis.”

The researchers warn that threatened species could be pushed towards extinction by plastic pollution.

Watch: Big brands call for global pact to stop plastic pollution