You might call Ting Xu a magician, but really, she is a UC Berkeley polymer scientist and co-author of a project that could truly change the packaging world as we know it. Ting and her research team at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have found a way to make biodegradable plastics disappear… completely! Considering we have nearly 5 billion metric tons of plastic sitting in our landfills and oceans, this couldn’t have come at a better time. This development is one that is desperately needed and could truly revolutionize the way we recycle our single-use packaging.
Biodegradable plastics were once hailed as the answer to our recycling woes, but in practice, they have been held back by a few major limitations. Frequently, they are missorted and end up contaminating other recyclable plastics, or they end up in landfills, where they lack the proper conditions to break down and end up lasting just as long as forever plastics. “It’s worse than if you don’t degrade them in the first place,” said Xu. Fortunately, she and her team studied nature to mimic a process that actually breaks down the plastic from the inside in a matter of weeks, utilizing only heat and water. “In the wild, enzymes are what nature uses to break things down—and even when we die, enzymes cause our bodies to decompose naturally,” Xu told Berkeley Lab. “So, for this study, we asked ourselves, ‘How can enzymes biodegrade plastic so it’s part of nature?’”
How is this possible? The researchers focused on a polyester called polylactic acid, or PLA, and this new process involves embedding polyester-eating enzymes in the plastic as it is made. The enzymes are protected by a simple polymer wrapping that, when exposed to heat and water, shrugs off its coating and starts breaking down the plastic into its original building blocks. Xu’s team found that as much as 98% of their modified plastics converted into small molecules, leaving no microplastics behind.
Going forward, Xu thinks this process could apply to different types of polyester plastic and various recycling problems, like developing compostable glue for electronics. Aaron Hall, another study co-author and former UC Berkeley doctoral student, founded a company to commercially develop these plastics. Intropic Materials is a start-up that aims to leverage novel enzyme stabilizing nanotechnology in an effort to solve the plastic waste problem from the inside out. The team has grand ideas for the future. “We want this to be in every grocery store,” Xu told Science News.
ForeFront wholeheartedly agrees, and we can’t wait for the opportunity to start utilizing this process for our packaging! In the meantime, we have plenty of sustainable packaging options to better serve your business, and in turn, the world! We love to talk options- give us a call anytime.