Biodegradable plastics have been advertised as one solution to the plastic pollution problem bedeviling the world, but today's "compostable" plastic bags, utensils and cup lids don't break down during typical composting and contaminate other recyclable plastics, creating headaches for recyclers.
Most compostable plastics, made primarily of the polyester known as polylactic acid, or PLA, end up in landfills and last as long as forever plastics.
University of California, Berkeley, scientists have now invented a way to make these compostable plastics break down more easily, with just heat and water, within a few weeks, solving a problem that has flummoxed the plastics industry and environmentalists.
"People are now prepared to move into biodegradable polymers for single-use plastics, but if it turns out that it creates more problems than it's worth, then the policy might revert back," said Ting Xu, UC Berkeley professor of materials science and engineering and of chemistry. "We are basically saying that we are on the right track. We can solve this continuing problem of single-use plastics not being biodegradable."
The new technology should theoretically be applicable to other types of polyester plastics, perhaps allowing the creation of compostable plastic containers, which currently are made of polyethylene, a type of polyolefin that does not degrade. Xu thinks that polyolefin plastics are best turned into higher value products, not compost, and is working on ways to transform recycled polyolefin plastics for reuse.
The new process involves embedding polyester-eating enzymes in the plastic as it's made. These enzymes are protected by a simple polymer wrapping that prevents the enzyme from untangling and becoming useless. When exposed to heat and water, the enzyme shrugs off its polymer shroud and starts chomping the plastic polymer into its building blocks — in the case of PLA, reducing it to lactic acid, which can feed the soil microbes in compost. The polymer wrapping also degrades.
The process eliminates microplastics, a byproduct of many chemical degradation processes and a pollutant in its own right. Up to 98% of the plastic made using Xu's technique degrades into small molecules.
Image: A modified plastic (left) breaks down after just three days (right) in standard compost and entirely after two weeks. (UC Berkeley photo by Ting Xu)