They say that after the death of each king, the ancient Persians ‘celebrated’ five days of lawlessness. The idea was that riots, disorder and misfortunes would calm their rebellion and make them more faithful to the successor. I’m not convinced it was a real custom, but I am convinced that it is a constant worry in almost all walks of life. Above all, in those places where the death of a standard is experienced as something deeply traumatic.
Today, if there is a undisputed king of modern society, that is the plastic. But he is a king in poor health and against whom numerous experts, activists, businessmen and politicians have taken up arms. In this century, we have seen plastic grow, triumph and become a huge pollution problem.
And now that we want to get rid of it, we realize that we can’t live without it. For this reason, the war against plastic seemed to put us headlong into those five days of anarchy of the ancient Persians: a man who can. But no: to this day, there are many alternatives that dream of reaching the Plastic Throne.
The race to replace plastic
In reality, everything stems from a very reasonable reflection. If we can not get rid of all the plastic we use, but it is doing us bad, perhaps we can replace it with materials with similar characteristics, but without those health, ecological or industrial problems.
And we are in it. Against the clock, too. Because companies and research institutes are quite clear that the zero moment for alternatives to plastic is now: society is sensitive to the problem and politics is more than open to seeking solutions. In this context, Whoever arrives first can get a good chunk of the cake. And, beware, there is no shortage of participants in the race, so many that in this installment we only review a few: the most curious or those who seem capable of displaying the most potential.
The first option that comes to mind is plant-based plastic. These bioplastics are built with different complex biomolecules such as potato starch, cornstarch, lignin, or cellulose. They are completely biodegradable and, during their useful life, have qualities very similar to ordinary plastic.
There are many centers, companies or associations such as Full Cycle Bioplastics, Biome Bioplastics, Asobiocom, Elk Packaging, Biodog, NU Green and VTT Technical Research Center from Finland who are working on biopolymers capable of replacing plastic. And even though we have not found a universal substitute We (still) do have biosolutions for any problem and there are still hopeful projects in this regard, such as that of a wood-based bioplastic that biodegrades in three months.
In 1897, while investigating different materials to develop an impermeable material, Spitteler and Krische discovered that casein (a milk protein) became hard and insoluble when treated with formaldehyde. They were born like this casein plastics and they became very popular: they were quickly used to make small decorative objects (buttons, buckles, umbrella handles, jewelry, etc …) and thus replace ivory and tortoiseshell. But they soon discovered that it broke very easily.
In the last times there are researchers bent on revitalize the idea to convert casein into a biodegradable material capable of competing with the stiffness and compressibility of polystyrene. The applications are many, but there is still a lot of work to get to an optimal material. Of course, if they get it, it would be milk.
Other plastics of animal origin
Lactoplastics are not the only material that deals with use biomolecules of animal origin to generate substitutes of plastic. An especially interesting line of work are lthe feathers. Especially because chicken feathers they are a problem In themselves. In the United States alone, more than 1,300 million kilos of chicken feathers are generated and we do not know what to do with them. For a time they were used as animal feed, but years ago they stopped being made to prevent health problems.
However, feathers have a very interesting thing: keratin. Keratin is in animal hair, nails, horns, or hooves. The idea seems obvious: if we get find industrial methods to extract and process all that keratin we could generate very interesting materials. There are several research centers trying, but a substitute candidate has not yet been found.
Mushrooms are really useful for many things. We have discussed its potential for feed astronauts in outer space, but they could also be used to find a substitute for plastic. Ecovative takes already one of each focused on using the mycelium (network of hyphae that form the vegetative part of fungi) to converting crop residues into materials that have similar properties to Styrofoam in just a few days. Although we have been a few years without hopeful news and also the mushrooms stick out their chest in being useful in another way: eating the plastics.
Another very interesting way (and the last one that we are going to comment on) follows just the opposite way: they do not try to make the biopolymers more resistant, try to make plastics biodegradable (or, if we want to be more precise, bioerodible). On the one hand, some types of plastics with these characteristics have been developed, such as loss (polyhydroxyalkanoates) or PCL (polycaprolactone). It is true that, for example, PCL is not made from renewable resources, but it degrades after six weeks of composting. Not bad.
On the other hand, an important line of research is being developed to develop “prodegradant additives” to be incorporated into plastics normal and allow them to be degraded in record time. There are commercial technologies like TDPA o go MasterBatch Pellets which show that it is a very fertile field.
Of course, all that glitters is not plastic. Yes, they are exactly the same as the plastics we use and that is precisely why they are difficult to control plastics. When they are not recycled well, the risk of prodegradant additives leaching out in the water system and erode pipes, pumps and other plastic devices is high.
Imagen | Jumpstory, Freepik
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