Plastic is everywhere
We use plastics in most aspects of our lives.
Most plastics are made of petroleum (oil), which takes hundreds of years to decompose. A great deal of our plastic waste ends up in the ocean, where it breaks down into microplastics.
Scientists are finding that microplastics can cause major problems for life in the ocean and other bodies of water. Zooplankton (microscopic animals in the ocean) eat microplastics and this can block their digestive system and kill them. Larger animals eat the zooplankton and get microplastics in their bodies.
Eventually microplastics are found in animals at every level of the food chain, from tiny zooplankton to large predators like sharks and whales.
What is bioplastic?
Scientists are trying to design biodegradeable plastics that will decompose as fast as organic matter like plants and animals do. These plastics are called bioplastics.
Many fast food containers have plastic liners
Fast food wrappers are one of the ways that we use plastic. The packaging used to wrap hamburgers and fries is usually covered with a thin layer of plastic in order to make it grease-resistant. This lining keeps oil or other fats in the food from leaking through the container and getting on our laps or our furniture!
But because of this plastic lining, fast food containers cannot be recycled like other types of cardboard or paper. This is a problem because people around the world use these fast food containers – a lot of them – every day.
Scientists around the world are inventing bioplastic liners for fast food packaging
A team of scientists at Flinders University in Australia recently developed a recyclable bioplastic coating made out of seaweed. The new coating material is made from a material called sodium alginate, which is obtained from brown algae. Brown algae is one of the major kinds of seaweed. “Seaweed” is a general term for plants and algae growing in the sea.
Seaweed breaks up and decomposes in the oceans like all plants do in ecosystems. So plastics made from seaweed will naturally decompose also.
The Flinders University scientists have successfully created the new bioplastic coating made of seaweed in the lab. They now need to figure out how to create it at the industrial scale needed to replace petroleum based plastics for fast food wrappers. They also need to do food safety testing to make sure that the new bioplastic does not have any safety issues for containing food.
In the Philippines researchers are already developing new solutions to the plastic-wrap problem. In 2019, a Filipino college student named Denxybel Montinola made headlines when he developed a bioplastic film using mango and seaweeds.
He showcased his invention in the 2019 DOST-BPI Science Awards competition. He was one of the 30 outstanding college students who received an award for their scientific research and innovations.
Denxybel Montinola’s bioplastic is made out of materials called carrageenan (from seaweeds) and pectin (from mango peelings). These materials are combined without using any petroleum ingredients, and thus make the material biodegradable.
Not only is the plastic biodegradable, but it could help use up mango peelings that are considered environmental waste since mango peels are a byproduct of mango farming. Mango is the Philippines’ national fruit, and it is the third-most important fruit crop in the country.
Someday hopefully you will be able to order fast food that comes wrapped in material that decomposes organically as your burger and fries decompose in your tummy.