Scientists Say They Have Found a Viable Replacement for Petroleum-Based Plastic

Scientists at Ohio State University say they have developed a viable alternative to petroleum-based plastic food packaging by using natural tree-based rubber. According to the researchers, the new biodegradable material holds promise for fighting the world’s growing plastic pollution problem, as well as for helping curb our reliance on fossil fuels.

Finding a replacement for petroleum-based plastic food packaging has been a major challenge to date, with nearly all the solutions proposed either too expensive or too brittle to stand up to the demands of shipping, handling, and the stress of microwaving and freezing.

The new material developed by Ohio State scientists, detailed in a new study in the journal Polymers, involves melting natural rubber into a plant-based biodegradable plastic called PHBV, and then adding an organic peroxide and an additive called trimethylolpropane triacrylate (TMPTA). The scientists’ end product was 75 percent tougher and 100 percent more flexible than PHBV on its own.

Other researchers’ previous attempts to make rubber-enhanced bioplastics have reduced the strength of the PHBV component by as much as 80 percent, rendering them almost useless for food packaging. The new method developed by the Ohio State researchers, however, reduced PHBV’s strength by just 30 percent. Now, the researchers are focusing on the potential use of additional biodegradable materials that might be used to make their product even stronger. They’ve considered tomato skins, egg shells, and even invasive grasses being removed from waterways as possible options.

“Our goal is to decrease petroleum based plastics by finding alternative bioplastics with equivalent performance,” Yael Vodovotz, a food science and technology professor at Ohio State and co-author of the new study, said in an interview with Green Matters. “We hope to work with a variety of manufacturers and industrial partners in achieving this goal.”

Christian Detisch