Discarded plastic bottles are a huge environmental problem. Around the world, 20 million tonnes of plastic are made into bottles every year, and discarded plastic bottles are a huge environmental problem. So scientists are looking for new, more environmentally-friendly ways of making plastic without using oil.
At the Biological Research Centre in Madrid, Spain, scientists are looking at the role bacteria could play in plastics production and making polymers out of organic waste. And with no petroleum needed!
The researchers are growing the bacteria which are key to the whole process.
It is part of the pan-European research project SYNPOL. The name comes from a specific gas mixture which triggers the production of bio-plastics inside these micro-organisms.
Maria Auxiliadora Prieto Jimenez, a scientist at the Centro de Investigaciones Biologicas, explained how it happens: “These bacteria accumulate bioplastic in form of granulate inside them, which we can later extract using various chemical methods. This way we can obtain a wide variety of different substances. For example, we have bioplastic material, which we obtained through this process.”
Making plastic in the lab is one thing; these researchers are now investigating how the process could be transformed into a large scale production plant.
It is not just waste that can be turned into bio-plastic molecules. Within the European research project SPLASH, scientists at the Food & Bio-based Research Laboratory in The Netherlands are investigating algae. This is because some forms of it produce large amounts of sugars and hydrocarbons that could be turned into bioplastics.
Dr Lolke Sijtsma at the lab in Wageningen talked us through their thinking: “The reason why we focused on algae in the SPLASH project is that they are very productive. They use sunlight and carbon dioxide and some minerals very efficiently, and on the other hand algae they can also be grown in places where you can’t grow food crops. So they do not compete with the food production and in that respect it is very important that we use algae in this project for bio-polymers.”
A formula developed by the Dutch company Avantium transforms the algae sugar into polymer molecules. This is the raw material used to make plastic bottles – and according to its producer, has much less environmental impact than traditional plastic bottles.
Avantium’s Ed de Jong said: “This kind of material emits 70 percent less carbon dioxide and also uses much less non-renewable energy sources, so it is much more sustainable then the traditional plastics and also the properties are much better.”
While testing the strength of the new material, the researchers realised that compared with conventional plastic, it is very strong, meaning it is possible to use less plastic for each bottle.
The potential for these new bio-plastics could be huge: Avantium believes that it could gain a significant market share and replace between five to 10 million tonnes of conventional plastic annually. The next task is to produce biodegradable bio-plastic.