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Can agricultural waste turn into sustainable plastics?

Scientists have found a way to turn agricultural waste into high-performance, sustainable plastics that can also withstand multiple cycles of mechanical recycling

The new sustainable plastics can not only be potential alternatives to plastics but can also withstand multiple cycles of mechanical recycling, the researchers claimed in the study.
The new sustainable plastics can not only be potential alternatives to plastics but can also withstand multiple cycles of mechanical recycling, the researchers claimed in the study. (Pexels)

In a world where people are running out of time to save the planet, one of the biggest problems is the widespread dependency on plastics, which reduces the ecosystem’s ability to adapt to climate change. Now, in a new study, scientists have found a way to turn agricultural waste into high-performance, sustainable plastics.

The study, led by researchers from Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, has developed a new method for creating polyamides—a class of plastics known for their strength and durability such as nylons—using a sugar core derived from agricultural waste. This method can lead to efficient transformation with minimal environmental impact, the university’s press statement revealed.

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Generally, fossil-based plastics need aromatic groups to give them rigidity, which leads to properties such as hardness, strength and high-temperature resistance. The new study shows that these performance properties can be achieved using a sugar structure, which is ubiquitous in nature and generally completely non-toxic.

The researchers developed a catalyst-free process to convert dimethyl glyoxylate xylose, a stabilized carbohydrate made directly from biomass such as wood or corn cobs, into high-quality polyamides. This is achieved with 97% atom efficiency, which means that almost all of the starting material is used in the final product. This significantly reduces waste.

The study showed that the new sustainable plastics can not only be potential alternatives to plastics but can also withstand multiple cycles of mechanical recycling, maintaining their integrity and performance, the statement explained. The findings were published in the journal Nature Sustainability.

These bio-based polymides have a range of applications, from automotive parts to consumer goods, all of which can massively reduce carbon footprint. The research team’s analysis showed that these materials could be competitively priced against traditional polyamides such as nylons and showed a global warming potential reduction of up to 75%.

However, while bio-based plastics are designed to help reduce plastic pollution, a major problem has been their disposal. As bioplastics look and feel similar to petroleum-based plastics, they often end up in the recycling stream and not in the composters.

To address this problem, researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) collaborated with X, the moonshot incubator led by Alphabet, Google’s parent company last year. They developed a simple process to break down mixtures of petroleum-based and bio-based plastics using naturally derived salt solutions paired with specialized microbes, the researchers said in a press statement.

In this process, the salts break the materials down from polymers into the individual molecules which the microbes then ferment into a new type of biodegradable polymer. This process could make bio-plastics more sustainable and increase their potential as an alternative to conventional petroleum-based plastics.

Also read: This new process could solve a peculiar bio-based plastics problem

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