With plastic pollution long having hit record highs, researchers and entrepreneurs around the world are making serious advances in developing resource-friendly bioplastics. John Dyer reports from Boston.
When Ocean Cleanup’s 600-metre-long floating net left San Francisco harbour in September on a mission to eradicate the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch, many were hopeful.
It seems they were overly optimistic.
“It appears that the system occasionally travels slower than the plastic, which provides the caught plastic with the opportunity to leave the system again,” Ocean Cleanup said in a December press release.
The group founded by 24-year-old Dutch inventor Boyan Slat added that they are tweaking the system in an attempt to sweep up the 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic they estimate are floating in a swirling dump between California and Hawaii.
Plastic found in Mariana Trench
That glum news came around the same time humanity hit another dismal milestone regarding plastic.
“Manmade plastics have contaminated the most remote and deepest places on the planet,” Chinese researchers told the Guardian after they published research showing they had found plastic in the Mariana Trench at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.
“The hadal [deepest water] zone is likely one of the largest sinks for microplastic debris on Earth, with unknown but potentially damaging impacts on this fragile ecosystem.”
But there are glimmers of hope to address the threat that plastic poses to a sustainable future.
Israeli researchers have developed a bioplastic that they claim will not pollute the oceans while also avoiding the pitfalls that have prevented bioplastics from becoming popular.
“Our new process produces ‘plastic’ from marine microorganisms that completely recycle into organic waste,” Tel Aviv University Environmental Engineer Alexander Golberg, who published his findings in the journal Bioresource Technology, said in a press release.
Breakthrough in bioplastics
Bioplastics made from organic materials like algae or hemp have long promised to become a good replacement for polluting, carbon-based polymers.
Plastic accounts for around 90 per cent of ocean pollutants in our oceans, according to the United Nations. Since plastic traditionally comes from fossil fuels, it’s also a major source of carbon emissions that contribute to climate change.
But bioplastics usually require soil and fresh water, making them costly competitors of agriculture, development and other land uses or impossible to produce in countries where land is at a premium, like Israel.
But this new bioplastic polymer, called polyhydroxyalkanoate, grows in seawater.
“Our raw material was multicellular seaweed, cultivated in the sea,” said Golberg. “These algae were eaten by single-celled microorganisms, which also grow in very salty water and produce a polymer that can be used to make bioplastic. Our new process produces ‘plastic’ from marine microorganisms that completely recycle into organic waste.”
The new polymer could be produced in ocean farms, delivering a steady stream of a material used in numerous household products and industrial applications.
“The process we propose will enable countries with a shortage of fresh water, such as Israel, China and India, to switch from petroleum-derived plastics to biodegradable plastics,” said Golberg.
Golberg and his colleagues are now refining the process so he can find bacteria and algae that make bioplastics with different properties for different uses.
Hemp biomass could be used for bioplastics
The Israeli researcher isn’t the only person advancing the bioplastic revolution.
Farmers throughout North America are expected to produce plenty of hemp in the coming years as a byproduct of marijuana production. Canada recently legalised recreational marijuana. Mexico is expected to follow suit soon. Numerous American states have already done so.
The new marijuana-friendly landscape led Australia’s Elixinol to create a startup, the Hemp Plastic Company, to create bioplastics. Elixinol is considered the fifth largest cannabinoid producer in the United States, according to the research firm Brightfield Group.
“To be truly cost effective with bioplastics, it’s all about being close to production,” Elixinol Chief Executive Paul Benhaim told Yahoo Finance. “With…people growing hemp in the US, there will be more biomass available and we can use the waste product for whatever they are growing hemp for.”