Can We Make Biodegradable Plastic from Grass?

June 8, 2013 in Science, Technology by Justin Beach

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Most plastics are currently made from fossil fuels. This presents a number of problems. First, and most obviously, it contributes to greenhouse gasses and global warming. It is also not biodegradable, it congests landfills and is toxic when it is incinerated. Some of it can be recycled but that requires additional energy. There are methods of making from plant sources but those too require energy and produce additional greenhouse gasses. (Ethanol is not green.) Finally plastics are subject to peak oil, just like all other petroleum based products. That means that plastic, and all of the many, many items made from plastic will be subject to the same rate of inflation that gasoline is.

New genetic engineering research has the potential to change the petroleum plastic problem though. Via MIT Technology Review:

“…researchers at Metabolix in Cambridge, Massachusetts, are genetically engineering switchgrass to produce a biodegradable polymer that can be extracted directly from the plant.
That could transform the economics of making biodegradable polymers. Metabolix already sells such a polymer, but it’s produced by bacteria that feed on plant sugars in expensive fermenters. A plant-based process, which could use crops grown on marginal lands, would require less equipment.

Metabolix estimates that it could ultimately sell its plant-based polymers at less than half today’s prices. Whereas today’s end products are niche items like biodegradable plastic shopping bags, more widely used types of products and packaging could then become economical.”

If these polymers can be produced in a way that makes them compatible source material for 3D printing it would mean biodegradable, reusable plastics with almost no carbon footprint.

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