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Guilt-free plastic for composting in your yard

Researchers develop highly degradable sugar-based polymer for plastic from non-food biomass.

The London Imperial College researchers say their sugar-based polymer has been found to be safely degradable in your back yard or even inside your body.
Imperial College London

A new sugar-based polymer could be used to make common food containers compostable at home right alongside your potato peels and egg shells.

A team of engineers and scientists at the Imperial College London led by Charlotte Williams in partnership with BioCeramic Therapeutics have created a degradable material from sugars derived from the breakdown of lignocellulosic biomass.

Williams noted in the group's announcement that while they're not the first to come up with a "biorenewable plastic," many of those have previously been made from sugar beet- or corn-based biomass.

It's a fairly accurate estimate.

In the last few years Cereplast has produced a biodegradable paper cup, for example, that forgoes the typical petroleum-based resin coating in favor of plastic resin made of cornstarch. It also has cornstarch-based biodegradable forks, knives, food packaging, and even bioplastic toys. In 2007 Metabolix announced it had begun producing a corn-based plastic call Mirel in conjunction with agricultural giant ADM.

There is even a Denmark-based company, Agroplast, that is looking to develop plastic products from animal urine.

The polymer developed at the Imperial College London is instead derived from the sugars that are produced when you breakdown lignocellulosic biomass: biomass made from cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin that is found in wood byproducts, grasses, and some types of agricultural waste.

"For the plastic to be useful it had to be manufactured in large volumes, which was technically challenging. It took three and a half years for us to hit a yield of around 80 percent in a low energy, low water use process," Williams said in a statement.

More significant is that the plastic can absorb water and breakdown quickly, leaving no harmful products in the soil or even in humans. In addition to having use for food packaging, the polymer was found to safely degrade in humans without harm, making it a candidate for use in stitches or as a vehicle for medicine delivery.

The group said their polymer, if adopted by companies, could be a significant breakthrough, as it estimates that currently 99 percent of plastics are derived from fossil fuels.