Everyone agrees that plastic pollution is a serious threat to the global environment, which has many scientists looking for a solution. Researchers at Tel Aviv University (TAU) have come up with a potential one with the development of new biodegradeable plastic polymers derived from microorganisms that feed on seawater.
A multidisciplinary collaboration between Alexander Golberg of TAU's Porter School of Environmental and Earth Sciences and Michael Gozin of TAU's School of Chemistry has developed the process, which produces zero toxic waste and creates a sustainable polymer that recycles into organic waste, researchers said in a news release.
Statistics for how much plastic is polluting the earth are dire, with the United Nations estimating that plastic accounts for up to 90 percent of all the pollutants in our oceans. Still, there are only a handful of alternatives to plastic for all its various uses, which has researchers around the world aiming to solve the problem.
Researchers at Tel Aviv University have developed a bioplastic derived from seawater that breaks down into organic waste to try to help solve the global plastic pollution problem. (Image source: Tel Aviv University)
A Problem That Will Last Hundreds of Years
"Plastics take hundreds of years to decay,” Goldberg said of the complexity of the issue. “So bottles, packaging, and bags create plastic 'continents' in the oceans, endanger animals, and pollute the environment. Plastic is also produced from petroleum products, which has an industrial process that releases chemical contaminants as a byproduct.”
To develop the new bioplastic, researchers used as a raw material microorganisms that feed on seaweed to produce a bioplastic polymer called polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA). "These algae were eaten by single-celled microorganisms, which also grow in very salty water and produce a polymer that can be used to make bioplastic,” Goldberg explained. "Our new process produces 'plastic' from marine microorganisms that completely recycle into organic waste."
Key to the team’s invention is not just that they have created a bioplastic, he stressed. There are already factories that produce this type of bioplastic in commercial quantities; however, they use plants that require agricultural land and fresh water, which are in short supply throughout the world and in Israel specifically, Goldberg said.
The process the team developed needs neither of those things, as the plastic can be developed in seawater, which is abundant, he said. “The process we propose will enable countries with a shortage of fresh water, such as Israel, China, and India, to switch from petroleum-derived plastics to biodegradable plastics,” Goldberg said.
Researchers believe their work could be a breakthrough in global efforts to clean the oceans without affecting arable land and without depleting any freshwater resources, Goldberg said. "We have proved it is possible to produce bioplastic completely based on marine resources in a process that is friendly both to the environment and to its residents,” he said. The team published a study of their work in the journal Bioresource Technology.
The team plans to continue and expand its work, with their next step aimed at finding the best bacteria and algae for producing polymers for bioplastics with different properties, Goldberg added.
Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for 20 years. She has lived and worked as a professional journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco and New York City. In her free time she enjoys surfing, traveling, music, yoga and cooking. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.
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