(CN) — Once the coronavirus pandemic is over, we’ll be able to picnic for the planet without guilt: Scientists searching for biodegradable alternatives to plastic have developed food containers made from sugarcane and bamboo that decompose within 60 days.
Researchers at Northeastern University in Boston say they have developed sustainable, nontoxic tableware using a sugar by-product that can be molded into food and beverage containers.
“Making food containers is challenging,” said lead author Dr. Hongli (Julie) Zhu, whose study was published Thursday in the journal Matter. “It needs more than being biodegradable.”
Specifically, the material must be clean enough to safely handle food. It must also have good “wet mechanical strength” — the ability to hold liquids for a lengthy period of time. Plastic has both qualities in abundance, which is why it has been utilized for decades. But more people are becoming aware that the legacy of plastic production outlives the substance’s usefulness.
Zhu’s effort was inspired by her first visit to the United States in 2007. Having grown up in China, Zhu said she was surprised at the widespread availability of disposable plastic plates, bowls and utensils in the U.S.
“(I) thought, ‘Can we use a more sustainable material’?” she said in a statement accompanying the study.
Her concern is easy to understand. More than 8 million tons of plastic waste is dumped into oceans each year, and only about 14% of the 78 million tons of plastic packaging produced in 2019 was recycled.
In their quest for low-carbon alternatives to plastic, Zhu and her colleagues focused on two widely available materials: bamboo and bagasse, or sugarcane pulp. Researchers wound together thin bamboo fibers with thick ones made of bagasse to form a material that could be molded into containers that are stable and biodegradable.
To increase water resistance, researchers added alkyl dimer (AKD), an eco-friendly chemical widely used in the food industry. The result exceeded their expectations, producing a material that outperformed current commercial biodegradable food containers, including egg cartons.
While traditional plastic such as plastic bags and disposable cups can take as long as 450 years to degrade, Zhu’s “green” tableware starts decomposing 30-45 days after it’s buried. The substance completely loses its shape after 60 days.
But the benefits don’t end there. Zhu and her colleagues say they have developed a material with a significantly smaller carbon footprint than plastic.
“The new product’s manufacturing process emits 97% less CO2 than commercially available plastic containers and 65% less CO2 than paper products and biodegradable plastic,” according to the study.
Since cost is an essential element in a product’s success, Zhu and her colleagues are working to make the manufacturing process more energy efficient in order to compete with plastic. While the cost of cups made out of the new material ($2,333/ton) is two times lower than that of biodegradable plastic ($4,750/ton), traditional plastic cups are still cheaper ($2,177/ton).
“It is difficult to forbid people to use one-time use containers because it’s cheap and convenient,” stated Zhu. “But I believe one of the good solutions is to use more sustainable materials, to use biodegradable materials to make these one-time use containers.”
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