The growing popularity of billiards in the 19th century had put a strain on the supply of natural ivory, leading to the invention of the first partially synthetic polymer in 1869.
Since then, synthetic polymers have been substituting natural materials like wood, metal, and horn, which has indirectly helped the environment. However, with the rising concern of plastic pollution, synthetic plastics have lost their appeal.
In this article, we will discuss biodegradable plastics and a possible alternative, PHA (Polyhydroxyalkanoates). Our Plastics Development Director, Domenico Lo Curto, who has been in the industry for over three decades, will give us his overview of the industry, the plastics villainization process, and possible replacements.
The Origins of Plastics and the Loss of Its Appeal
Initially, synthetic plastics were made to solve problems. The first partially synthetic polymer was invented in 1869 by John Wesley Hyatt, who was inspired by a New York firm's offer of $10,000 for anyone who could provide a substitute for ivory. Later in 1907, Leo Baekeland invented the first fully synthetic polymer to substitute shellac, a natural electric insulator, to fit the needs of the quick electrification process in the United States. Synthetic polymers have been substituting natural materials like wood, metal, and horn, which indirectly helped the environment.
However, plastic's reputation fell during the 1970s when the perception of plastic changed due to the pollution of oceans and soils with plastics and microplastics. Although plastics have a valuable sense in our lives, our throw-away attitude has caused a negative impact on the environment.
A famous picture that appeared in 1955 and was used as the cover of Life magazine celebrated the "Throwaway living." A reliable, useful, and durable material that can take hundreds of different shapes has become a victim of our throw-away mindset, which has been a common mindset in the last four decades.
Durable and Biodegradable Polymers, Do They Exist?
While plastics have a valuable sense in our lives, we still need to go one step further. It is nature that provides the best solution. Bacteria, which started to make trials three billion years ago, produce over 50 types of macromolecules that are natural polymers known as PHA (Polyhydroxyalkanoates) in proper culture and nourishment.
PHA can degrade both in aerobic and anaerobic conditions and even in marine water, the most challenging environment for biodegradation. The polymer does not originate microplastics, it starts rotting and degrading throwing out CO2 and H2O.
PHA: An Injusticed Bio-Plastic Alternative?
PHA is not getting momentum like other bioplastics, considering all the advantages that it brings. There are many reasons for that. First, it is a polymer that so far cannot be produced in continuous production plants on a large scale. Second, it is a specialty and more expensive than a commodity like PLA.
Moreover, it is not yet well-known by most plastic transformers, which is why it is called the sleeping giant. Its developing potential is impressive. However, we often associate the concept of biodegradable with something not durable.
Markets that can Look at PHA as a Viable Alternative for Traditional Plastics
Typical applications that can look at on this case are shopping bags, food packaging, cutlery. Then, via compounding with mineral fillers, natural-based colors, and all kinds of vegetal additives, PHA can achieve the desired final properties.
This is a real breakthrough in the plastic market and one of the best solutions that the industry can put in place to solve our concerns about plastic.
The future of plastics
The future of plastics depends on how we approach the problem. The “throwaway living” mindset has to change, and we need to start treating plastic as a valuable resource that can be used again and again.
The industry is already working on developing sustainable alternatives that are durable, biodegradable, and recyclable.
PHA is one such alternative that shows a lot of promise. It is a bio-based and biodegradable polymer that can replace traditional plastics in a variety of applications.
By investing in research and development, we can make PHA more cost-effective and easier to produce, which will lead to wider adoption in the industry.
Plastics have played a significant role in our lives and have helped us solve many problems. However, their reputation has taken a hit due to our throwaway attitude and the pollution they cause.
We need to change our attitude towards plastics and start treating them as valuable resources that can be reused and recycled. The industry is already working on developing sustainable alternatives like PHA that can replace traditional plastics.
By investing in research and development, we can make PHA more cost-effective and widely available, which will help us transition to a more sustainable future.
In conclusion, PHA is a viable alternative to traditional plastics that offers several advantages like biodegradability, durability, and versatility. It is time for us to embrace this technology and start using it to solve our plastic pollution problem.
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