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We all know plastics are very useful materials used in nearly every part of our lives, they have contributed greatly to the formation of our modern world. 

However we also know that the unprecedented amount used in production over recent years can caused serious unbalance and damage to the environment around us. In fact packaging alone contributed a whopping 46% out of 340 million overall tonnes of plastic waste generated on earth in 2018. 

Plastic recycling has increased enormously over recent years however the majority used today are single use and neither recyclable or biodegradable. Pair this with the simple fact that the global demand for food will double by 2050 and you have a recipe for a problem that will get much worse, much more quickly. 

At present it is usually poorer countries in Africa that hold the burden of waste disposal for us in the West, the pressure they are already under will of course increase in the coming years. 

In order to meet these challenges we need more sustainable packaging materials that are naturally biodegradable and if necessary can easily be recycled.

Spider Silk and Plant Based Sustainable Packaging : A lesson from Nature

Researchers at the University of Cambridge have discovered an innovative way to produce plastic from abundant and sustainable plant proteins. Inspired by the spider silk ( weaved by spiders when they produce their web ) these packaging films function in a similar way to traditional plastics, but can be readily composted at home. 

Types of Plastics Packaging 

Using the food packaging market as an example we typically see both synthetic and non-biodegradable plastics used in film constructions. These include PET (polyethylene terephthalate), PS (Polystyrene) and CPET (Crystalline Polyethylene Terephthalate).

Some mechanical and chemical processes do already exist mainly for the disposal of PET but it is a little known fact that despite all the West recycling initiatives and efforts the vast majority of plastic packaging is still sent to landfills. This is exacerbated by the inconvenient truth that PET can take hundreds of years to decompose and is certainly not biodegradable. Unfortunately the damage done to eco systems in that time can be severe. 

Enter Plant Based Plastics  

Alternatively there a some biodegradable plant based plastics that can provide real world, viable alternatives to traditional plastics. These include PLA (Polylactic acid), PBS (Polybutylene Succinate), PCL (Polycaprolactone) and various PHA’s (Polyhydroxyalkanoates). Each is much more environmentally friendly when compared to non-renewable polymers, coming from renewable sources and being fully recyclable & compostable. Generally speaking though these plant based plastics are not currently as robust as their synthetic counterparts. 

The new Cambridge research builds on this understanding and looks to further enhance plant based plastics by investigating new polymers such as soy proteins to further enhance stability and performance. 

Vegan Spider Silk?

Researchers created plant based plastics with the addition of nanoparticles smaller than one millionth of a meter, This meant material structures could be manipulated and controlled in order to create new flexible packaging films for use across sectors. They were able to mimic a material that looks like spider silk on a molecular level. They christened it ‘Vegan Spider Silk’.

Watch this space for more innovations in the plant based packaging sector. 

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