EPFL develops PET-like plastic from waste biomass

This plastic prevents oxygen from entering food packets

Highly transparent and flexible strand of the bioplastic. Photo credit: Lorenz Manker
Highly transparent and flexible strand of the bioplastic. Photo credit: Lorenz Manker

EPFL scientists have developed the latest PET-like plastic from the plants’ non-edible parts. This plastic is heat-resistant and an excellent barrier to the gasses such as oxygen. All these make it a great choice when it comes to food packaging.

People are becoming more concerned about getting rid of plastic accumulation and getting away from fossil fuels. The goal is to solve the challenge of climate change. 

Considerable efforts are being made to develop recyclable or degradable polymers produced from non-edible parts of plants, known as lignocellulosic biomass.

In 2021, about 8.3 billion tons of plastic waste were produced worldwide. This problem is getting serious with each passing day because the number is constantly increasing. Plastic pollution harms plants, animals, and humans through its toxic pollutants. It can take thousands of years for plastic to break down completely. Therefore, the damage is long-lasting.

Conventional plastics are widespread because they perfect heat stability, low cost, processability, compatibility, and mechanical strength features. An alternative replacement for plastic must surpass or at least match. Till now, it has been a difficult task.

PET-like plastic to replace other plastics

A biomass-extracted plastic like PET to replace multiple present plastics besides being environment-friendly has been developed by the scientists led by EPFL’s School of Basic Sciences’ professor Jeremy Luterbacher. The specialty is its structure, as the new plastic can be recycled chemically and degrade back to the harmless sugars in the environment.

We often cook the non-edible plant parts in inexpensive chemicals to produce the plastic precursor. Keeping the structure of the sugar intact inside the plastic’s molecular structure is a simple alternative.

Adding aldehyde can stabilize some plant material fractions and prevent destruction during extraction. After repurposing this particular chemistry, the experts re-build a useful bio-based chemical as a precursor of plastic.

The ‘sticky’ groups can be clipped together on the sugar molecules on both sides by using glyoxylic acid in place of formaldehyde. This allows them to serve as plastic building blocks. This technique has been used to convert about 25% of the agricultural wastes’ weight or 95% of the purified sugar into plastic. 

Processing of the bioplastic by extrusion to make fibers for 3D printing. Photo credit: Maxime Hedou
Processing of the bioplastic by extrusion to make fibers for 3D printing.
Photo credit: Maxime Hedou

New strategies to eliminate plastics

These plastics’ perfectly rounded properties allow them to be utilized in textiles, packaging, electronics, and medicine. The researchers have already made packaging films. These fibers can be spun into filaments and textiles to facilitate 3D printing.

Exciting properties are possessed by plastic, especially for applications such as food packaging, according to Luterbacher. The sugar structure staying intact is one of the best properties of plastic that makes it unique. This particular fact makes things very easy to make as there is no need for you to modify what nature offers you. It can degrade quickly as it can go back to a molecule that is already abundant in nature.

Scientists are actively trying to make the planet plastic-free completely. New strategies and techniques are already under development and can be seen in the future to eliminate plastics from Earth.

The Covid-19 pandemic led to the country-wide lockdown on 25 March 2020. It will be two years tomorrow as I write this. What have we learned in this time? Maybe the meaning of resilience since small companies like us have had to rely on our resources and the forbearance of our employees as we have struggled to produce our trade platforms.

The print and packaging industries have been fortunate, although the commercial printing industry is still to recover. We have learned more about the digital transformation that affects commercial printing and packaging. Ultimately digital will help print grow in a country where we are still far behind in our paper and print consumption and where digital is a leapfrog technology that will only increase the demand for print in the foreseeable future.

Web analytics show that we now have readership in North America and Europe amongst the 90 countries where our five platforms reach. Our traffic which more than doubled in 2020, has at times gone up by another 50% in 2021. And advertising which had fallen to pieces in 2020 and 2021, has started its return since January 2022.

As the economy approaches real growth with unevenness and shortages a given, we are looking forward to the PrintPack India exhibition in Greater Noida. We are again appointed to produce the Show Daily on all five days of the show from 26 to 30 May 2022.

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