Researchers at the University of Cambridge have found a way to produce plastic from plant proteins.
Mimicking spider silk, the plastic-like film has the distinct advantage of being compostable at home, meaning it doesn’t require industrial conditions to degrade. The energy-efficient production method of the plastic alternative uses durable materials, resulting in a self-supporting film that is inherently suitable for mass production. The customization of the polymer is further evidenced by the fact that color can be added to it, the material also being useful in the production of water resistant coatings.
As such, said material of plant origin can be used to replace single-use plastics in the packaging industry.
The convenience, high functionality, and consistently low price associated with plastic have made it virtually indispensable for manufacturing purposes. This, in turn, has exacerbated the waste crisis, with in 2019 more than 130 million metric tons of single-use plastics being thrown, burned, buried in landfills or dumped in the oceans. In 2018, 46% of the 340 million tonnes of plastic waste generated annually could be attributed to single-use plastics.
With the increase in food demand, especially in developing countries, plastic packaging waste is expected to become a major problem.
The alternative to eco-friendly plastic developed by researchers at Cambridge could help address these challenges.
Soy protein is an example of a renewable, biodegradable polymer that the research team used to make a new material that could compete with conventional plant plastics.
After creating their own plant-based material, the scientists in question added nanoparticles to it. The addition enables the production of flexible films, with a material that resembles spider silk at the molecular level. Ergo, ‘vegan spider silk’.
After analyzing the film via different techniques such as scanning and transmission electron microscopy, scientists found that nanoparticles help improve barrier properties ranging from water permeability and durability to strength and stability. global.
This is remarkable as the food industry has encountered difficulties in phasing out conventional plastics due to specific packaging needs. Properties such as moisture sensitivity, high temperature stability, flexibility, and non-permeability to odors and microorganisms are just a few of them. This demand for various properties has led to hybrid packaging which in turn has foiled attempts at recycling.
Other biodegradable plastics of plant origin such as polylactic acid (PLA), polybutylene succinate (PBS), polycaprolactone) (PCL) and polyhydroxyalkanotes (PHA), which have a significantly lower ecological footprint, exist, but they have their own drawbacks. PLA, for example, is not compostable at home while PHAs come from expensive industrial processes that limit their potential for mass production.
The proposed vegan spider silk could potentially trump these alternatives to green plastic with its environmentally friendly production process, renewable source materials, and improved properties, all of which put it on a par with virgin plastics.