With more than 300 million tonnes of plastic being produced annually across the globe, it does not help that they are notoriously difficult to recycle with the majority being sent to landfill sites or incinerated. Plastic pollution on beaches and their consequent harm to wildlife has led to the Prime Minister describing plastic waste as “one of the greatest environmental challenges facing the world”.
Researchers at the University of Warwick and University of York have now found that the ‘tree glue’ lignin found in plants and trees can be turned into biodegradable plastic. Lignin is a natural glue that holds cellulose fibres together and is responsible for the rigidity in plants and trees. In the papermaking process, however, it is a byproduct. It causes paper from wood pulp to weaken and discolour therefore is removed. Research suggests that this ‘byproduct’ could be used to form bioplastic. This finding comes with a more profound and optimistic possibility of this material being mass produced in as little as five years.
Lignin is a natural glue that holds cellulose fibres together and is responsible for the rigidity in plants and trees
Bacteria called Rhodococcus jostii live in the soil and feeds on the tree glue and while doing so, it breaks down lignin. Researchers have now found a way to edit the genes of the bacteria so that it still feeds on the lignin as normal however would overproduce an enzyme that would catalyse the decomposition of lignin into biodegradable plastic.
This biodegradable plastic can be used to make many of the things you couldn’t otherwise imagine manufactured using a different material. Plastic straws, disposable water bottles and packaging could all soon be replaced with this bioplastic that would naturally break down. The material’s properties can be altered to make it rigid, bendable or into a clear film thus can be utilised for a range of purposes.
Plastic straws, disposable water bottles and packaging could all soon be replaced with this bioplastic that would naturally break down
This ground-breaking discovery would not have been possible without the determination of Professor Tim Bugg at the University of Warwick who said, “I have been working on lignin for 40 years and when I started people said ‘you’re wasting your time’ but now people are thinking this is possible. Still difficult but this is possible.” Furthermore, Professor Simon McQueen-Mason, a materials biologist at the University of York added that “A 50 kilotonne PEF (PET replacement) plant could produce enough plastic to replace 50 per cent of all drinking bottles used in the UK.”
Evidently, a great deal of time and effort went into the research and now the researchers are reaping the benefits of their hard work. Undoubtedly, this research will serve to not only improve our understanding of bioplastics and their potential methods of synthesis but will positively impact our contribution to embracing sustainability as well as the health of our planet very much infected by our ill-use of plastics at present.