Sugar-Based Biodegradable Plastics

With a growing demand for plastics, high waste disposal numbers and a growing population, renewable sources are a must to keep a healthy environment. Recycling steps may have already been put in action in many places around the world but plastic items are still a big part of land pollution. It is predicted that by 2050 “over 13 billion tons of plastic waste will be in landfills or the environment.”

Reducing environmental footprints.

A recent study a the University of Bath found a new way to create plastics. This new method will reduce the carbon footprint unsustainable plastics leave during their production.
Biodegradable plastics are made using sugar and carbon dioxide. The new process applies low pressures and keeps the process at low temperatures, instead of highly toxic chemicals. This makes it a safer production procedure and at the same time, it reduces the cost of its production.
The biodegradable plastic has similar properties as it is strong, transparent and scratch resistant. “The crucial difference is that they can be degraded back into carbon dioxide and sugar using the enzymes found in soil bacteria.”

This is a graphic showing how sugar and carbon dioxide is converted to plastic. Credit: Georgina Gregory

It’s in the DNA

The inspiration for this process came from the sugar found in DNA called thymidine. It was used as the building block for a plastic that can be biocompatible. It can become possible to replace medical implants; for example, the plastic can be “positively charged so that cells can stick to it, making it useful as a scaffold for tissue engineering” like growing replacement organs for transplants. Thymidine is not the only sugar scientists have their eyes on, ribosome and mannose are also looked to be used and synthetic but sustainable materials.

Biodegradable plastic bags. Picture: CSIR

Currently, new plastic shopping bags were developed by CSIR (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research) claiming the bags are 100 percent biodegradable and would break down in three to six months. The plastic is corn and sugar bio-based and made from agricultural by-products. Biodegradable Plastic bags are expected to be commercially used in South Africa by next year.