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The reign of plastic is coming to an end: these are some of the candidates to replace it

They say that after the death of each king, the ancient Persians ‘celebrated’ five days of anarchy. The idea was that the tumults, disorder and misfortunes would calm their rebellion and make them more faithful to the successor. I’m not convinced it was a real custom, but I am convinced that it is a constant worry in almost all walks of life. Above all, in those places where the death of a standard is experienced as something deeply traumatic.

Today, if there is a undisputed king of modern society, that’s the plastic. But he is a king in poor health and against whom many experts, activists, businessmen and politicians have taken up arms. In this century, we have seen plastic grow, triumph and become a huge pollution problem.

And now that we want to get rid of it, we realize that we cannot live without it. For this reason, the war against plastic seemed to put us headlong into those five days of anarchy of the ancient Persians: a man who can. But no: to this day, there are many alternatives that dream of reaching the Plastic Throne.


The race to replace plastic

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In reality, everything is born from a very reasonable reflection. If we cannot get rid of all the plastic we use, but it is doing us badly, perhaps we can replace it with materials with similar characteristics, but without those health, ecological or industrial problems.

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And we are in it. Against the clock, too. Because companies and research institutes are quite clear that the zero moment for alternatives to plastic is now: society is sensitive to the problem and politics is more than open to seeking solutions. In this context, Whoever arrives first can get a good part of the cake. And, beware, there is no shortage of participants in the race, so many that in this installment we only review a few: the most curious or those who seem capable of displaying the most potential.

Bioplastics

The first option that comes to mind is plant-based plastic. These bioplastics are built with different complex biomolecules such as potato starch, cornstarch, lignin, or cellulose. They are completely biodegradable and, during their useful life, have qualities very similar to ordinary plastic.

There are many centers, companies or associations such as Full Cycle Bioplastics, Biome Bioplastics, Asobiocom, Elk Packaging, Biocane, NU Green and VTT Technical Research Center in Finland that are working on biopolymers capable of replacing plastic. And even though we have not found a universal substitute We (still) do have biosolutions for any problem and there are still hopeful projects in this regard, such as a wood-based bioplastic that biodegrades in three months.

Lactoplásticos

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In 1897, while investigating different materials to develop an impermeable material, Spitteler and Krische discovered that casein (a milk protein) became hard and insoluble when treated with formaldehyde. Thus, casein plastics were born and they became very popular: they were quickly used to make small decorative objects (buttons, buckles, umbrella handles, jewelry, etc …) and thus replace ivory and tortoiseshell. But they soon discovered that it broke very easily.

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In recent times there are researchers bent on revitalize the idea to convert casein into a biodegradable material capable of competing with the stiffness and compressibility of polystyrene. The applications are many, but there is still a lot of work to get an optimal material. Of course, if they get it, it would be milk.

Other plastics of animal origin

Evie Shaffer 505136 UnsplashEvie Shaffer 505136 Unsplash

Lactoplastics are not the only material that deals with use biomolecules of animal origin to generate substitutes of plastic. A particularly interesting line of work is pens. Above all, because chicken feathers are a problem in and of themselves. In the United States alone, more than 1,300 million kilos of chicken feathers are generated and we do not know what to do with them. For a time they were used as animal feed, but years ago they stopped being made to prevent health problems.

However, feathers have one very interesting thing: keratin. Keratin is in animal hair, nails, horns, or hooves. The idea seems obvious: if we get find industrial methods to extract and process all that keratin we could generate very interesting materials. There are several research centers trying, but a substitute candidate has not yet been found.

Grow containers

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Roman Synkevych

Mushrooms are really useful for many things. We have discussed its potential to feed astronauts in outer space, but it could also serve to find a substitute for plastic. Ecovative has been focused for a decade on using the mycelium (network of hyphae that form the vegetative part of fungi) to converting crop residues into materials with similar properties to Styrofoam in just a few days. Although we have been a few years without hopeful news and also the fungi stick out their chest in being useful in another way: eating plastics.

Biodegradable plastics

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Another very interesting way (and the last one that we are going to comment on) follows just the opposite way: they do not try to make the biopolymers more resistant, try to make plastics biodegradable (or, if we want to be more precise, bioerodible). On the one hand, some types of plastics with these characteristics have been developed, such as PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoates) or PCL (polycaprolactone). It is true that, for example, PCL is not made from renewable resources, but it degrades after six weeks of composting. Not bad.

On the other hand, an important line of research is being developed to develop “prodegradant additives” to be incorporated into plastics normal and allow them to be degraded in record time. There are commercial technologies such as TDPA or MasterBatch Pellets that show that it is a very fertile field.

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Of course, all that glitters is not plastic. Yes, they are exactly the same as the plastics we use and that is precisely why they are difficult to control plastics. When they are not recycled well, the risk of prodegradant additives leaching out in the water system and erode pipes, pumps and other plastic devices is high.

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