Researchers at the Italian Institute of Technology have developed a new process that can turn cocoa, rice and vegetable waste into a biodegradable plastic that could be used to manufacture furniture, rugs and even shopping bags.
Plastic waste is a growing problem around the world. In 2012, plastic production reached 288 million tonnes worldwide, according to the American Chemical Society. Yet it’s also one of the most environmentally damaging products that we use: It can persist for hundreds or even thousands of years, releasing toxic components that are harmful to both the environment and human health. Plastic is also made out of petroleum, a notoriously non-renewable source.
A team from the Italian Institute of Technology set out to find a simply, less costly way to make the shift to more environmentally friendly bioplastics. They found the solution in a naturally occurring organic acid that can process cellulose and which is the main building component of plans and also the most abundant polymer in nature.
The team mixed the acid with parsley and spinach stems, and husks from rice and cocoa pods. Then, they poured the resulting solutions into lab dishes. When tested, the films that formed showed a promising range of traits from brittle and rigid to soft and stretchable — similar to commercial plastics.
“This opens up possibilities for replacing some of the non-degrading polymers with the present bioplastics obtained from agro-waste,” the researchers concluded, and can help the world deal with its agricultural and plastic waste problems simultaneously.
Photo credit: A. Abrusci/Instituto Italiano di Tecnologia