Scientists are developing new materials to replace fuel-based plastics
The use of plastic is greatly widespread because it is a lightweight material, easily moldable, isolating, resistant to corrosion and, above all, very cheap to produce.
But it has a big disadvantage: the ecologically devastating effect it has on the environment. This material takes centuries to degrade and disappear, so it is highly polluting.
In order to fight plastic pollution on the planet, groups of researchers around the world are looking into how to make similar materials from vegetable fibers, which can decompose just after being used.
Plastic from plants
Bioplastic is a material that is made with plant products like corn, potatoes or sugar cane and not of fuel or natural gas, like conventional plastics.
An example of a bioplastic is Polyactic Acid, known as PLA. This material has properties similar to PET plastic, the plastic used in bottles, but it is manufactured with renewable resources. The PLA already has varied applications, from packaging to medical implants.
But it is not perfect: PLA does not isolate gases correctly. This means that it cannot be used to make soda bottles nor for vacuum-packed foods. In addition, it does not withstand temperatures above 45ºC: if we put hot coffee in a PLA glass it would melt.
The challenges of Bioplastic
Another problem of bioplastic is in order for it to decompose, it needs very specific conditions.
We often find bags, containers and bottles labeled “Biodegradable” in the sea or in our environment: this happens because most bioplastics only decompose at temperatures above 50ºC.
This is one of the greatest challenges researchers face today. So far, they have already managed to create bioplastics that decompose alone in the open air, but the manufacturing process must be improved and its cost lowered before it can actually reach the market.
Traditional materials, the greenest
Other materials that are being used to replace plastic are natural components that were already used in the past, for example linen, hemp or wood.
These plant fibers come from renewable sources and are completely biodegradable: when they decompose, they automatically integrate into nature without leaving a trace.
These fibers can replace plastic when making cars and airplanes. Not only are they lighter than plastic, but they also cut down on the amount of fuel needed by vehicles.
Generating Energy by burning plastic
A significant part of disposable plastic waste cannot be recycled. Therefore, around 14% of the plastic is burned so that it does not end up in landfills or in the ocean.
The heat from the incineration process can be used to generate energy: heat heats water up, which later turns into steam that moves the turbines. Besides, this hot water can also be used to heat buildings like houses or schools.
However, the burning of plastics releases many greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide, and the remaining ashes are still a polluting product for the Earth.
Therefore, the best option is to reduce the use of plastics and support the development of biodegradable materials.