Can you make plastic from plants?

Cellulose-based plastics

We all know about the problem of the use of synthetic plastic containers, which are made from petroleum derivatives such as polyethylene, polypropylene, polyvinyl chloride and polyethylene terephthalate, among others. These are not biodegradable and represent a serious environmental pollution problem, as well as causing health problems when consuming food and beverages in this type of packaging.

Bioplastics are an alternative to reduce the pollution caused by these synthetic plastics, since they are polymers that come from natural and renewable sources, all of which are biodegradable by microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi and algae.

Cellophane was the first bioplastic, invented in the early 20th century, made from vegetable cellulose. Due to the production of cheaper and more versatile synthetic plastics, the production of plant-based plastics was discontinued.

Bioplastics made from starch and cellulose are obtained by bacterial fermentation, are brittle and are not suitable for the production of flexible and resistant films. However, rigid trays are manufactured for packaging dry products, since from the point of view of their degradation, they practically dissolve in water.    If cellulose is chemically modified to obtain cellulose acetate, its properties can be used to make flexible and tear and puncture resistant films.

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How to make biodegradable plastic

Plastics since their invention have displaced materials such as wood and glass from a host of applications. Conventional plastics are produced from fossil reserves, which last in nature for long periods of time and when accumulated generate large amounts of waste, which due to their nature carry with them toxic substances that affect the environment. As an alternative to such a situation, biodegradable plastics have emerged, which among their advantages present their degradability in compounds such as: water, carbon dioxide and humus (García, 2015).

Bioplastics are high molecular weight compounds made from natural sources, such as microbial polyester cultures, starch, cellulose, among others. Starch has been one of the main raw materials considered for this purpose, due to its high availability, low cost, renewable nature, biodegradability and economic competitiveness in relation to petroleum (Chariguamán, 2015).

How biodegradable plastic helps

Today it would be difficult to do without plastics, not only because of their usefulness but also because of the economic importance of these materials. This is reflected in the growth rates of this industry which, since the beginning of the last century, has outstripped almost all other industrial activities and material groups. Plastics are cheap and seem to last indefinitely. They are present in packaged goods, transportation, buildings, sports equipment and medical technology, among other areas.

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Plastics are organic substances that are obtained by chemical reactions between different raw materials of synthetic or natural origin and can be molded or processed into a wide variety of shapes by applying heat and pressure. More than 700 types of plastics are currently produced, including polystyrene, nylon, polyurethane, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), bakelite, silicones, epoxy resins, and polyamides. They are said to be polymers (from the Latin “poli = many” and “meros = parts”) because they are made up of long chains of molecules (monomers) linked together containing mainly carbon and hydrogen in their structure. Polymers can be natural or synthetic.

Traditional plastics

In today’s society, plastics are used in all types of packaging and objects, generating a large amount of waste that is disposed of in the environment. This, together with the fact that it is a material that takes a long time to degrade, makes it a big problem for the alternative to these plastics is to manufacture bioplastics. This would allow them to biodegrade in less time, thus reducing the impact generated by this waste. For this reason, in this EcologíaVerde article we will see how to make biodegradable plastic with cornstarch.

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