When plastics first came onto the scene in the early 20th century, they became instantly popular due to their endurance, versatility and low manufacturing costs. They’re not only used for food and drinks packaging, but also in medicine for artificial heart valves and on spacecraft.
But environmental concerns about the material’s slow decomposition – brought into the public consciousness in a big way by images in the BBC’s Blue Planet II – have necessitated research and development activity aimed at finding alternatives.
The cons of plastic
Plastics notoriously find their way into the marine environment. Indeed, an estimated 250m tonnes of the stuff is expected to be polluting the sea by 2025. The motion of the sea, in addition to sunlight, causes plastics to break down into microplastics, which find their way into the systems of marine animals and in turn have a potential impact on human health.
Around 128m tonnes of the plastic debris is comprised of single-use plastics, which have low recycling rates and can take thousands of years to break down.
Where plants come in
The recyclability of plastics is closely linked to the production process. Most plastics are made from oil-based substances and have no oxygen content. This makes them impervious to water and therefore to the common types of enzyme and bacteria that are crucial to decomposition.
Awareness of the limitations to the earth’s oil supply are well documented and have led to organisations seeking alternative sources of chemicals. The use of bio-based materials as opposed to oil-based ones is gaining popularity, largely because they can be broken down easily into smaller ‘platform molecules’ – chemical building blocks that can be used to make other useful materials, such as plastics.
Bio-based materials include waste wood, crops and food among other waste biological matter. These materials are being used by the Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence at the University of York to create a new type of bio-based polyester, which can be used as clothing fibres and food containers. Being plant-based, the materials are fully recyclable and biodegradable.
Not only will bio-based plastics be biodegradable thanks to their innate oxygen content, they will facilitate a circular economy, in which resources are recycled and reused as many times as possible. For researchers such as those at the University of York, that means viewing plastic as a resource rather than a problem.
Creating sustainable plastics
It’s not only researchers at universities that are looking into the development of sustainable food packaging and other plastic alternatives. Many UK businesses are also engaged in the effort, and could be eligible to make an R&D claim for tax relief on relevant, innovative projects. If your business is actively seeking sustainable alternatives to plastic, you can find out how to calculate R&D tax credits that you could be entitled to by contacting R&D Tax Solutions today.