Polymers, it is almost impossible to imagine life without them. Whether you love them or loathe them, they have immensely transformed our global society in every way, shape and form, especially in developed nations.
Approximately 299 million tons of plastic were produced in 2009, with a continuous demand for these synthetic polymers across the globe.
Widespread awareness about the ecological impact of plastics choking marine wildlife, with research about pollution in marine environments dates back to 1972. In recent years, reports about the vast patches of plastic debris that have accumulated in oceans over many decades, further highlights the importance of proper waste management and how ‘away’ does not exist.
Due to the aforementioned problems with synthetic polymers (i.e. conventional plastics), there has been a recent trend of biodegradable polymers (i.e. ‘bioplastics’) to replace them. Whilst biodegradable alternatives pose a solution, complications arise over any non-biodegradable constituents incorporated into the material. As a consequence, toxic residues from certain ‘biogradable’ polymers could be released into the natural environment.
There is a plethora of plant-based materials that provide alternatives to artificial plastics. For example, zeins and glutens found in staples such a wheat (Triticum aestivum), maize (Zea may) and soybean (Glycine max). When considering edible-plant products, it is imperative to be mindful of how much is being diverted from undernourished people that rely on the staples, particularly in developing nations.
However, it is commendable that researchers seek more eco-friendly products that simultaneously have a low/negligible detrimental impact on societies worldwide. The ingenuity of researchers at the University of Queensland (UQ), Australia, contributed to the development of Plantic, a biodegradable plastic based on corn starch that is utilized as packaging for major brands such as Cadbury, Nestlè and Marks and Spencer. Now, UQ researchers are seeking to develop fully biodegradable cups.
Despite some drawbacks, it is optimistic to reflect on the numerous countries (and individual jurisdictions within) that have banned and/or taxed plastic bags, addressed the concern with single-use water bottles and other forms of pollution.
Regardless of what materials are used, the classic environmental adage prevails: Avoid, reduce, reuse, recycle then dispose, only as a last resort.