In the last few years, we have all finally noticed a shift regarding single use plastic and it was about time as plastic is one of the biggest polluters on this planet and causes severe damage. Despite our efforts to recycle, less than 9% of plastic gets recycled in the U.S., and most ends up in landfill or the environment. Many different materials that are compostable and biodegradable got invented and are slowly replacing their conventional fossil-fuel-based counterparts.
The issue about biodegradable
Especially when it comes to biodegradable materials, it doesn’t always mean that it is actually good for the environment. There are not many kinds of plastic to be known reliably recyclable. To be precise only the types labelled as one and two, are recyclable. A lot of products labelled as biodegradable are made from toxic materials and take a long time to degrade, therefor they cause more harm for the environment.
Polymer scientist Ting Xu has worked for a decade to research how to break down the stubborn material and make it environmentally friendly.
The solution for the biodegradable pollution
Biodegradable can only be broken down efficiently in industrial facilities exposed to certain temperatures. Under soil and water conditions these materials cause significant pollution. The solution for this problem got inspired by nature itself. “Enzymes are really just catalysts evolved by nature to carry out reactions,” says Xu. “If you want to get a material to become a part of nature, we should go with what nature has already developed.”
Scientist have now invented compostable plastic, which is just as stable as plastic made from fossil fuels but breaks down with heat and water within a few weeks. This compostable plastic doesn’t leave any toxic traces behind and can be safely placed into a normal compost bin.
Polyester eating enzymes break down the compostable plastic
The plastic has embedded the enzymes instead of having them just on the surface. The difference is that it would break down a lot slower if the enzymes weren’t wrapped individually with four-part nanoparticles. Those nanoparticles help the enzymes to not fall apart before they eat the plastic and help it disintegrate. The other compound of the material is polymer beads, they are mixed with the wrapped enzymes early in the process.
The future for the compostable plastic
While this is already a great step in the right direction, Xu is keeps working so this technology can be used for other types of plastic. The idea is to replace any products made of polyester plastic. Perhaps creating compostable plastic containers, which are currently made of polyethylene which does not degrade at all. Xu is modifying the RHPS in which enzymes are being wrapped, so that the4 degradation can be stopped at a specific point that way the material won’t get completely destroyed and can be used to be turned into new plastic.