Plant-based Biodegradable Microplastics

In recent years, the detrimental impact of microplastics on our environment and health has become increasingly evident. Found in various places from oceans to soil, and even within our own bodies, these nearly indestructible fragments pose a significant threat. However, a groundbreaking solution may be on the horizon, as researchers from the University of California San Diego and materials science company Algenesis have developed plant-based polymers that biodegrade into microplastics in just seven months.

In a paper published in Scientific Reports, UC San Diego professors, alumni, and former research scientists detailed their innovative approach to tackling the microplastics crisis. Led by Professor Michael Burkart and Professor Robert Pomeroy, the team aimed to create biodegradable alternatives to traditional plastics that would not persist in the environment.

Testing The Product

Their efforts proved successful, with rigorous testing confirming the biodegradability. To test the biodegradability of the plant-based polymer, the team ground the product and then put it through several test methods.

The first one is the respirometer, so when a compost material is broken down by microbes, it will release carbon dioxide (CO2). This CO2 was then measured by a respirometer. The result shows that plant-based polymers break down at almost 100% level.

The team also tested it with the water flotation method. Under normal conditions, plastic will float on the water. To compare, after 90 days, petroleum-based polymers are still 100% recovered, meaning they are not degraded at all. Meanwhile the algae-based polymer recovered just 32%, and after 200 days only 3% left, meaning almost all of it has been degraded.

The last one is a chemical analysis using gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (CGMS). This analysis is detecting the presence of the monomer used in the plastic. The result shows that microorganisms start to colonize the biodegradable polymer during composting.

Also Read : Environmentally Friendly Plastics from Recycled Vegetable Cooking Oil

The Implication

The implications of this discovery are profound. Not only does it offer a sustainable solution to the end-of-life cycle for plastics, but it also addresses concerns about microplastic pollution and its potential health impacts. Unlike petroleum-based plastics, which can linger in the environment for centuries, these plant-based alternatives degrade rapidly, minimizing harm to ecosystems and human health.

Moreover, the researchers have made strides in overcoming manufacturing challenges, partnering with companies like Trelleborg and RhinoShield to integrate their plant-based polymers into a variety of products, from coated fabrics to cell phone cases. This collaboration signals a promising shift towards widespread adoption of eco-friendly materials in mainstream manufacturing processes.

As society grapples with the urgent need to reduce plastic pollution and mitigate its consequences, the emergence of plant-based biodegradable microplastics offers a ray of hope. While there is still much work to be done, this research exemplifies the potential for innovation to drive positive change and create a more sustainable future for generations to come.

In conclusion, the development of plant-based biodegradable microplastics represents a significant milestone in the quest for sustainable alternatives to traditional plastics. By harnessing the power of nature, researchers have demonstrated that it is possible to combat plastic pollution while offering viable solutions for industries and consumers alike. As awareness grows and technology advances, we can look forward to a world where plastics are no longer a burden on our planet, but rather a catalyst for positive environmental change.

Source : Marco N. Allemann et al, Rapid biodegradation of microplastics generated from bio-based thermoplastic polyurethane, Scientific Reports (2024). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-024-56492-6

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