7 unexpected ingredients with the potential for solving the plastic waste crisisMarie Donlon | February 10, 2020
As the world quite literally drowns in a sea of microplastic waste, the search is on for suitable plastic alternatives to take the place of the plastics used to manufacture water bottles, food and other consumer goods packaging, and disposable straws and cutlery, to name just a few.
Yet, amid this so-called global plastic waste crisis are innovators and researchers from all corners of the world attempting to solve the problem by turning to an assortment of unexpected ingredients, thereby keeping plastic from the world’s landfills and oceans.
A Mexico-based startup called Biofase is reportedly turning avocado pits into biodegradable straws and cutlery.
A chemical engineer at Biofase has discovered a technique for extracting a molecular compound from avocado pits to obtain a biopolymer that can be manipulated and molded into different shapes. The result is strong and durable disposable cutlery and straws that contain 70% biomass content.
The avocado-derived cutlery will decompose in just 240 days, either buried or exposed to the elements. For scale, typical plastic bottles can take over 450 years to decompose and plastic bags can take anywhere from 10 to 1,000 years to break down, according to estimates.
To eliminate the bulky packaging long associated with the cosmetics industry, a post-graduate student from London’s Central Saint Martins University has developed shampoo and other personal hygiene product packaging made entirely of soap.
To accomplish this, the grad student used vegetable-based soap and dye from the pigments of minerals, flowers and plants to develop the line of personal hygiene bottles called Soapack. To create the new packaging, the vegetable-based soap mixture was combined with dye and molded into vessels that mimic perfume bottles. To prevent leaks, the outer layers of the bottles are sealed with beeswax. Once depleted of their contents, the Soapack bottles can be either be re-used if kept dry, or used to wash with like a traditional bar of soap, degrading as it is exposed to water. Once it dissolves, no evidence of the material is left behind. The eco-friendly and waste-free bottles come with a paper-like instruction label that will also dissolve.
Researchers from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University have developed a biodegradable food wrap plastic alternative composed of soybeans. To accomplish this, researchers collected soybean pulp-like residue leftover from the production of soy milk and bean curd and fermented it to create a cellulose to be used as a plastic film alternative.
The bio-inspired wrap degrades rapidly once it is discarded because the material is digested by microbes.
London-based startup Shellworks has developed a technique for extracting chitin, a bio-polymer, from lobster shells to turn it into bioplastic material that can replace single-use plastics. To extract the chitin, the lobster shells are ground in a blender and then introduced to an acid and alkali solution that lifts away layers of mineral and protein to reveal chitin nanofibers. Chitosan powder is then added to household vinegar, resulting in a bioplastic solution. That solution is then used in Shellworks' custom machines to create 3D objects.
The startup is currently working on chitin-based formulas that could potentially result in alternative materials for traditional single-use plastics, like plastic shopping bags. While the team continues to explore whether the chitin-based material holds up under the pressure demands, the team has already determined that the chitin-based material is both antifungal and antibacterial — meaning that it could have potential applications for food storage and, at the end of its life, as non-polluting fertilizer.
Straw, maize and grass
Scientists from Bangor University, Wales, working alongside scientists from Makerere University in Uganda are using grass, straw and maize byproduct leftover from the farming industry to develop biodegradable packaging for eggs, fruits and vegetables.
The researchers have been pulverizing the plant fibers and then shaping them into shallow trays resembling the kind already used to package fruits and vegetables at the supermarket. However, what sets these apart is that the plant-based trays are compostable.
So far, University of Bangor scientists have turned the grass fibers into egg cartons that are sold in supermarkets in the U.K.
A product design student at the University of Sussex in the U.K. has developed a plastic film wrap alternative that is composed of fish skin, fish scales and red algae.
The bioplastic from the University of Sussex has been dubbed Marinatex. It is made up of fish scales and fish skin and combined with red algae, which behaves as a biopolymer.
According to its developers, the material is fully biodegradable and compostable, degrading in soil in under one month without leaching toxins. The resulting film is reportedly stronger than the plastic used in the manufacture of standard plastic bags.
A tech startup in Ontario, Canada, is reportedly paying sawmills for leftover sawdust to use in the making of plant-based plastic bottles.
Origin Materials is paying $20 a ton for sawdust left over from turning logs into lumber in local sawmills. To accomplish this, Origin Materials extracts cellulose from the wood waste to create para-xylene, which is a hydrocarbon typically obtained from oil and used to produce polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, which is a strong, clear and lightweight plastic that is one of the most commonly used plastics. Choosing to use wood waste instead of oil to produce the plastic resin absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere, according to the company, whereas drilling for the crude oil to manufacture plastic resin releases greenhouse gas emissions.
Whisky-maker Glenlivet recently partnered with sustainable packaging startup Notpla to create biodegradable and edible capsules of Scotch whisky.
The “Capsule Collection” is composed of a material, also called Notpla, that is a combination of seaweed and other plants. Together with Glenlivet, Notpla filled the capsules with 23 mL — roughly a shot’s worth — of whisky each. Each of the three reserves — citrus, wood and spice — can be consumed entirely by swallowing whole or punctured to reach the whisky inside. If discarded, the tablet biodegrades in an estimated four to six weeks, leaving behind no sign of waste.
Notpla produces the capsules on a dedicated machine and can inject them with a variety of substances including water, juice and condiments in lieu of plastic packaging such as plastic bottles.
As the global plastic waste crisis continues, even more unexpected solutions are bound to emerge. While none of them will likely be the silver bullet for eliminating plastic waste, anything to stem rising amounts of plastic is a step in the right direction.