Biodegradable Plastics and Enzymatic Recycling: Promising Alternatives to Mitigate Plastic Pollution
Biodegradable plastics have emerged as a potential solution to the severe environmental problem caused by the production and disposal of traditional plastic. These plastics can be made from natural sources like plant-based materials and micro-organisms such as bacteria that can be used in a variety of industries such as packaging, construction, and healthcare. While plastic pollution remains a significant issue, biodegradable plastics and enzymatic plastic recycling offer promising alternatives.
For every human on this planet, there are 21,000 pieces of plastic in the ocean. If a legally binding global plastic treaty doesn’t come to fruition, plastic in the oceans will almost triple by 2040. Humans produce over 300 million tons of plastic waste every year, with only 9% of it being recycled and about 19% incinerated to generate energy, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development. Traditional plastics are non-biodegradable, meaning they do not decompose naturally in the environment. Instead, they break down into microplastics that pollute our ecosystems and pose a risk to human health.
Biodegradable Plastics - A More Sustainable Alternative
Fortunately, biodegradable plastics offer a more sustainable alternative to traditional plastics, reducing the amount of plastic waste that ends up in landfills or pollutes our oceans. Biodegradable plastics, also known as bioplastics, are made from renewable resources such as plant-based materials, and they can break down naturally in an industrial composting facility.
There are different types of bioplastics, each with its unique properties and applications. For instance, polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) are produced by microorganisms such as bacteria and can be used for packaging, agriculture, and medical devices. Polylactic acid (PLA) is another common bioplastic made from renewable sources like corn starch, which can be used for food packaging, 3D printing, and textiles. Starch-based bioplastics made from corn or potato are used for food packaging and bags. Mushroom-based foam, made from the mycelium of mushrooms, can be used for packaging and insulation. Algae-based bioplastics are another emerging type of bioplastic, with potential applications in packaging, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals.
Biodegradable Plastics in Use
Many companies are already using biodegradable plastics to reduce their environmental impact. Dell is using mushroom-based foam for packaging to protect tech during transport. Lego has committed to using bioplastics made from sugarcane for sustainable Lego bricks. Algenesis has developed a biodegradable polyurethane foam called Soleic used in the soles of the world’s first biodegradable shoes made by sustainable shoe company Blueview Footwear.
Enzymatic Plastic Recycling - An Innovative Technology
Enzymatic recycling is a technology that uses special proteins called enzymes to break down plastic waste into smaller building blocks called monomers. Carbios, a French biotech company, has developed an enzymatic recycling technology that can recover over 95% of material from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a common plastic used in beverage bottles and packaging.
Carbios’ technology uses enzymes that break down PET into its building blocks, which can then be used to create new products. The process is better for the environment because it does not require high temperatures or harsh chemicals, and, unlike mechanical recycling, the resulting plastic can be used repeatedly without losing its chemical coherence.
Recycling Traditional Plastics
Recycling traditional plastics can be difficult and expensive, which is why new recycling technologies are being developed to make the process more efficient and sustainable. One such technology is enzymatic recycling, which uses special proteins called enzymes to break down plastic waste into smaller building blocks called monomers.
French biotech company Carbios has developed an enzymatic recycling technology that can recover over 95% of material from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a common plastic used in beverage bottles and packaging. The process is better for the environment because it does not require high temperatures or harsh chemicals. Unlike mechanical recycling, the resulting plastic can be used repeatedly without losing its chemical coherence.
Despite their promise, biodegradable plastics and enzymatic recycling technologies are still costly and resource-intensive to build and operate. It remains an open question whether biodegradable plastics will be as durable or versatile as traditional plastics. While there are current economic and technological challenges associated with the production of biodegradable plastics, it is clear that there is a growing need for more sustainable packaging solutions.
The recently ratified global plastic pollution treaty, which has been signed by over 170 countries, includes legally binding commitments to end plastic pollution and promote the use of more sustainable materials. It is hoped that this treaty will spur innovation in the development of new, more sustainable plastics and recycling technologies.
In the meantime, individuals can also play a role in reducing plastic waste by choosing to use less plastic and properly recycling the plastic they do use. With the development of biodegradable plastics and innovative recycling technologies, there is hope that we can tackle the plastic pollution crisis and create a more sustainable future for ourselves and the planet.