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Scientists Create Biomass-Based Plastics from Wood

The new plastic is not only biodegradable and recyclable, but it also offers good mechanical properties.

Scientists Create Biomass-Based Plastics from Wood
Pieces of wood and the plastic end product Yale School of the Environment, the University of Maryland

Plastics, plastics everywhere! That's most likely because they take hundreds of years to biodegrade, becoming some of the world's largest polluters.

To try and minimize this impact, a team of scientists from the Yale School of the Environment (YSE) and the University of Maryland has developed a high-quality plastic that biodegrades and is recyclable — and it's made from wood byproducts. 

The hope is to shift away from petrochemical plastics to renewable and biodegradable plastics — something that's proven tricky to do. 

The team published its findings in the journal Nature Sustainability.

How wood can be turned into plastic

The team found a way to deconstruct the porous matrix of natural wood into a slurry — a mixture of solids that's denser than water. To create this slurry mixture, the team took wood powder and broke the loose and porous part of it down using a biodegradable and recyclable deep eutectic solvent (DES).

The end material displays high mechanical strength, good stability when holding liquids, and UV-light resistance. On top of that, it's also biodegradable and can be recycled, and has a lower life-cycle environmental impact than petroleum-based plastics. 

Ultimately, the high solid content and viscosity of the mixture can easily be cast and rolled without breaking apart — into plastic bags, for instance.

Going a step further, the team then compared the environmental impact of the bioplastic with regular plastic by burying sheets of the bioplastic in soil. After two weeks it fractured, and after three months it had entirely degraded. That's a heck of a lot shorter than a few hundred years.

If that wasn't enough, the degraded bioplastic can then be broken back down into the slurry, to be recovered and reused. 

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"That, to me, is what really makes this plastic good: It can all be recycled or biodegraded," says Yuan Yao, assistant professor of industrial ecology and sustainable systems at YSE and co-author of the paper. "We’ve minimized all of the materials and the waste going into nature."

Potential impacts of using this bioplastic

A major issue that could arise from turning wood into bioplastics could mean a strain on forests. The team is aware of this issue if large-scale production of bioplastics takes off, as massive amounts of wood would be required.

To try and find a solution the team is working closely with a forest ecologist to create forest simulation models, so as to link the growth cycle of forests with the manufacturing process.

If everything is possible on a safe environmental level, this bioplastic could be used to replace plastic bags, or large sheets of plastic coverings — drastically minimizing plastic pollutants.

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