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Biodegradable breakthrough: Plastics that don't create microplastics or make us sick

Biodegradable plastics represent a monumental step toward resolving the persistent issue of plastic pollution, according to research from the University of California San Diego, in collaboration with Algenesis. 

The study reveals that plant-based polymers can completely biodegrade at the microplastic level in less than seven months. This discovery not only addresses the pressing environmental challenge posed by traditional plastics and microplastics but also signals a new age of eco-friendly materials. 

A growing environmental and health crisis

The pervasive nature of microplastics, tiny fragments shed from everyday plastic products, has become a pressing concern. These nearly indestructible particles have infiltrated our oceans, soil, and, alarmingly, our bodies. They have been found in arteries, lungs, and even placentas. 

Given their longevity (taking anywhere from 100 to 1,000 years to decompose), microplastics contribute to escalating pollution levels, posing significant risks to both the planet and human health. This grim reality highlights the urgency of finding sustainable alternatives to traditional plastics.

A breakthrough in biodegradable plastics

“An attractive solution to mitigate the environmental impact of microplastics is to develop plastics that do not generate persistent microplastics as part of their normal life cycle,” wrote the study authors.

Even plastics that are properly collected and recycled generate microplastics as part of the normal wear from everyday use or as a consequence of recycling or washing processes.

Thus, to prevent the accumulation of microplastics, new plastic materials must be developed that are completely biodegradable so that any particles generated from these products will quickly degrade in the environment.

The researchers have developed an innovative solution: algae-based polymers that biodegrade completely, including at the microplastic level, in under seven months. 

Understanding the implications of microplastics 

The research was led by Professor Michael Burkart and Professor Robert Pomeroy, both of whom are co-founders of Algenesis.

We’re just starting to understand the implications of microplastics. We’ve only scratched the surface of knowing the environmental and health impacts,” said Professor Burkart.

“We’re trying to find replacements for materials that already exist, and make sure these replacements will biodegrade at the end of their useful life instead of collecting in the environment. That’s not easy.”

Professor Pomeroy shared the team’s vision of creating a completely biodegradable plastics material. “When we first created these algae-based polymers about six years ago, our intention was always that it be completely biodegradable,” said Pomeroy.

“We had plenty of data to suggest that our material was disappearing in the compost, but this is the first time we’ve measured it at the microparticle level.”

Testing confirms the plastics are biodegradable 

The researchers subjected their algae-based polymer to rigorous testing to validate its biodegradability. They used respirometry, water flotation, and gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GCMS), alongside scanning-electron microscopy. 

These tests confirmed the material’s remarkable capacity to biodegrade, a stark contrast to traditional petroleum-based plastics which showed negligible decomposition under similar conditions.

“We demonstrated that prototype products made from these materials biodegrade under home compost conditions,” wrote the researchers.

“The generation of microplastics is an unavoidable consequence of plastic usage and mitigating the persistence of these particles by adoption of biodegradable material alternatives is a viable option for a future green circular economy.”

Envisioning a plastic-free future

Study co-author Professor Stephen Mayfield noted that this material represents the first plastic proven not to generate microplastics during use. 

“This material is the first plastic demonstrated to not create microplastics as we use it,” said Professor Mayfield. “This is more than just a sustainable solution for the end-of-product life cycle and our crowded landfills. This is actually plastic that is not going to make us sick.”

Pivotal moment in the fight against plastic pollution

The journey to commercial viability involves integrating this new biodegradable material into existing manufacturing infrastructure designed for conventional plastics. 

Algenesis has already made progress in this direction, partnering with companies like Trelleborg and RhinoShield to explore applications in coated fabrics and cell phone cases, respectively.

The journey to develop this biodegradable plastic alternative has not been without skepticism and challenges. 

“When we started this work, we were told it was impossible,” said Professor Burkart. “Now we see a different reality. There’s a lot of work to be done, but we want to give people hope. It is possible.”

The research marks a pivotal moment in the fight against plastic pollution. By offering a viable, biodegradable alternative to traditional plastics, this study not only contributes to environmental conservation but also paves the way for a healthier, sustainable future.

What makes plastics and materials biodegradable?

In today’s environmentally conscious world, the term “biodegradable” has become synonymous with sustainability, signaling a material’s ability to return to nature and reduce its impact on the planet.

Biodegradable materials, including certain types of plastics, play a crucial role in mitigating pollution and promoting a more sustainable lifecycle for products.

Chemical composition

The chemical makeup of a material plays a significant role in its biodegradability. Nature-derived substances, such as cellulose, starch, and lactic acid, form the basis of many biodegradable materials.

Microorganisms can readily break down these natural components. In contrast, synthetic plastics often consist of long, stable chains of polymers that resist biodegradation.

Molecular structure affects degradation

The arrangement and bonds between molecules in a material also impact its biodegradability. Simpler, more easily broken down structures are more likely to undergo biodegradation.

Materials with complex molecular structures prove more challenging for microorganisms to consume and break apart.

Microorganisms and biodegradable plastics

Biodegradation relies on the presence of microorganisms, such as bacteria and fungi, to consume and break down materials. The availability of these tiny decomposers in the disposal environment is essential. Without them, even potentially biodegradable materials may persist for extended periods.

Environmental conditions influence decomposition

Temperature, moisture, oxygen levels, and pH all play a part in the rate of biodegradation. Different materials and microorganisms thrive under varying conditions. Ensuring optimal environmental factors can significantly accelerate the decomposition process.

Additives enhance biodegradability

Manufacturers can improve the biodegradability of some plastics by incorporating additives that promote degradation. Substances like starch or cellulose help microorganisms break down the material more easily. These additives provide a starting point for decomposition and make the plastic more appealing to microbes.

Surface area speeds up the process

Materials with a larger surface area are more accessible to microorganisms, leading to faster biodegradation. Smaller particles or thin films tend to degrade more quickly than larger, thicker items. Increasing the surface area of a material can help accelerate its decomposition.

The bottom line on biodegradable plastics

While biodegradable materials offer a more environmentally friendly alternative to traditional plastics, it’s crucial to understand that they may not break down quickly or completely in all environments.

Landfills, for example, often lack the necessary oxygen and moisture for efficient biodegradation. Proper composting conditions are essential to ensure that biodegradable materials live up to their promise.

By understanding the science behind biodegradability, we can make informed choices about the materials we use and how we dispose of them. Opting for biodegradable alternatives and ensuring proper disposal conditions can help reduce our environmental impact and contribute to a greener future.

The study is published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.


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