Photo: Liz Glasco/Shutterstock.com
Photo: Liz Glasco/Shutterstock.com

Topics: Ethical Living | Environment

4 natural alternatives to plastics

Can we phase out petrochemicals when it comes to making plastic? These researchers think so.

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Thankfully, researchers are cooking up polymers that are derived from sustainable resources, with the goal of phasing out petrochemicals. Here are four examples that offer a glimmer of hope for the future.

Trees
Pinene is a chemical compound extracted from pine needles. Researchers at the University of Bath in England have developed a way to transform this pulp-and-paper-industry leftover into a replacement for caprolactone, a substance made from crude oil that is used to make some degradable polymers more flexible. (The same team is also looking into limonene, found in citrus fruit, as a substitute for plastic.) And in Finland, a team of researchers is developing compostable plastic-like material from wood cellulose. This can be made into layered material that protects food and other perishables from moisture and oxygen. Corn Polylactic acid (PLA) is derived from corn with the help of bacteria and can be used to create a polymer resin. The potential applications are numerous, including clothing, phone casings and credit cards. PLA can also be made from organic waste and transformed into multi-layer food packaging that can be composted at commercial facilities with any leftovers inside.

Seaweed and algae
Agari — made from agar, which is derived from red algae — is an experimental polymer developed by Icelandic product designer Ari Jónsson. Used for bottles, it holds up as long as it’s in contact with water, but as soon as you drink the bottle’s contents, it starts to biodegrade. You can also compost it. In Indonesia, the startup Evoware makes compostable — and edible — seaweed sachets for food items such as instant coffee and noodle seasoning, with more applications in the works. And Dutch designers Eric Klarenbeek and Maartje Dros process algae into a substrate used to print 3D objects.

Corn
Polylactic acid (PLA) is derived from corn with the help of bacteria and can be used to create a polymer resin. The potential applications are numerous, including clothing, phone casings and credit cards. PLA can also be made from organic waste and transformed into multi-layer food packaging that can be composted at commercial facilities with any leftovers inside.

Sugar cane
Polyethylene, one of the most common plastics, is made by polymerizing ethylene synthesized from petroleum-derived ethanol. But ethylene can be made from ethanol that’s derived from sugar cane, as the Brazilian company Braskem is doing. Then it can be used to replace petrochemicals in the manufacture of plastic.

This story first appeared in The Observer’s April 2018 edition with the title “Sustainable alternatives.”

Susan Nerberg is a journalist in Montreal.

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