A New Material Could Replace Plastic

A recycle bin containing  many water bottles and one wet wipes container.

Darrius H.

A recycle bin containing many water bottles and one wet wipes container.

Since the use of plastic has been popularized in the 1960s, it’s expected that more plastic will be in the ocean then fish by 2050. Because of this, environmentalists are urging to replace plastic with a truly biodegradable alternative.

Plastic is made of carbon-based polymers and petroleum. Because of its strength, plastic is a popular material used in everyday life. However, this is a double-edged sword as materials that make plastic are too durable to break down.

New research from Finland’s Aalto University and VTT Technical Research Centre has found a potential solution for Earth’s plastic mess that involves spiders and trees. The product is a flexible but strong material compared to most other natural substances. 

This material is first made from birch tree pulp that is broken down into cellulose nanofibrils which are tiny fibers. They are then aligned into a stiff scaffold along with spider web silk which serves as an adhesive.

One problem is how spiders are able to keep up with potential demand for the material. However, the silk didn’t come from real spiders but produced bacteria containing synthetic DNA. This can be done as researchers know the structure of the DNA which means they are able to copy it and produce silk protein molecules that are chemically similar enough to protein molecules found in spider webs.

It is possible that this material could be altered to have different characteristics to be used in other applications. Scientists are working to create new composite materials for implants, impact resistance, as well as other products. A problem that is yet to be resolved is that this branch of science is not fully understood at the moment.

It is clear that plastic isn’t the path to an environmentally friendly solution. Various reports have found out that plastics labeled as biodegradable don’t actually degrade. Instead of degrading, plastic breaks down into microplastic particles which are plastics small than five millimeters. The precise amount of microplastics is unknown but they have been found in even the most remote and deepest places in the ocean. This shows that a more effective approach to managing plastics is essential in reducing its impact on Earth.

Unfortunately, plastic isn’t going to go away overnight. Starting in the 1950s, the use of polymers has been growing drastically among consumers. Since then, around 300 million tons of plastic are produced per year. However, biomaterials similar to this spider silk and tree pulp hybrid and more concerted efforts to reduce the use of single-use plastics are one step closer to the correct direction.