Scientists develop biodegradable plastic that could decompose within weeks


  • A team of scientists from the Berkeley Lab and UC Berkeley built an enzyme-activated compostable plastic, capable of decomposing within weeks.
  • The team aimed at addressing the environmental concern of recycling plastic.
  • The new innovation would soon be out in the market.

With an environment-friendly innovation, the Berkeley Lab and UC Berkeley scientists have developed an enzyme-activated compostable plastic. This thing is capable of eliminating microplastics that could just simply diminish in weeks.

The new material could be disintegrated into its components, monomers (small individual molecules), and developed into a new compostable plastic variant.

“In the wild, enzymes are what nature uses to break things down—and even when we die, enzymes cause our bodies to decompose naturally. So for this study, we asked ourselves, ‘How can enzymes biodegrade plastic so it’s part of nature?” Berkeley Lab’s Materials Sciences Division faculty senior scientist, and professor of chemistry and materials science and engineering at UC Berkeley senior author Ting Xu said.

Xu spearheads an interdisciplinary team of scientists and engineers from universities and national labs around the country. The team is gathered at the Berkeley Lab to address the environmental issue of plastic landfill caused by biodegradable plastics.

The issue on traditional biodegradable plastics is that they cannot be differentiated against single-use plastic like plastic film. This matter typically ends up in landfills.

Per Corinne Scown, the study’s co-author at the Berkeley Lab’s Energy Technologies Area, a biodegradable plastic container that was stored in an organic waste facility could not easily break down as fast as the food it contained, so it would still contaminate organic waste.

Biodegradable plastic, which is basically made of polylactic acid (PLA) and in other cases polycaprolactone (PCL), is also not as sturdy as the regular plastic.

That would mean a typical green compost bag is not capable of carrying heavy items. Even though biodegradable plastics could decompose over time, Xu still argued that they would just turn into microplastics, which are still technically plastic.

With the current predicament on biodegradable plastics, the whole team came up with a new method, and that is by “nanoconfining” the enzymes into plastics.

Xu and the scientists incorporated components of commercial enzymes Burkholderia cepacian lipase (BC-lipase) and proteinase K with the PLA and PCL materials. They also included a four-monomer random heteropolymer, an enzyme protectant called RHP, to aid in spreading the enzymes a few nanometers apart.

The experiment yielded amazing results, as a typical tap water and standard soil composts had transformed the enzyme-embedded plastic material into small-molecule entities called monomers. The microplastics also perished within a couple of weeks at the latest.

According to Xu, the “nanodispersion puts each enzyme molecule to work,” and that “nothing goes to waste.”

The team has already filed for a patent via the UC Berkeley’s patent office, as the invention could be soon seen in the market.

Source: Good News Network

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