Scientists Turn Plants And CO2 Into Sustainable Plastic

The global impact could be huge.

Scientists from Stanford have developed a new means of producing plastic by combining plants and carbon dioxide, which could greatly reduce the environmental impact of manufacturing it. Their method was recently described in the journal Nature.

The plastic is called polyethylene furandicarboxylate (PEF). Developed a few years ago, the hope has been that it would replace one of the most common types of plastic, polyethylene terephthalate (PET). While PET has begun to integrate plant-based ingredients, they only make up about a third of the components, with the rest coming from petroleum sources. PEF, on the other hand, is made up of 100 percent biomaterials and is a true plant-based plastic.

"The use of fossil-fuel feedstocks, combined with the energy required to manufacture PET, generates more than four tons of CO2 for every ton of PET that's produced," lead researcher Matthew Kanan said in a press release.

On top of being more sustainable to manufacture, PEF plastic is better at creating a barrier for oxygen and carbon dioxide, meaning it would out-perform currently available plastics for bottled drinks. Because the PEF is stronger than PET, it would also take less material to achieve the same effect. 

Like with many promising new materials, however, scaling up production of PEF to make it a viable substitute has been difficult, primarily because different plants bring their own set of challenges with how they are sourced. Making a plant-based plastic isn't very sustainable if the water, resources, and fertilizer to grow the plants themselves create a huge burden.

Plastic bottle factory in China.
Plastic bottle factory in China. Shutterstock

To create a necessary compound called FDCA for the plastic in the most eco-friendly way possible, Kanan's team combined carbonate, CO2, and an acid derivative of a food waste plant material called furfural. When this mixture is exposed to high heat over several hours, nearly 90% of it was converted to the desired FDCA.

The PEF products are recyclable and capable of breaking down in the environment, but there is still a lot more to learn about how the timeframe works and what the true environmental risk will be. 

"We believe that our chemistry can unlock the promise of PEF that has yet to be realized," Kanan concluded. "This is just the first step. We need to do a lot of work to see if it's viable at scale and to quantify the carbon footprint."

The importance of a sustainable source of plastic cannot be overstated, as it is really easy to have a love-hate relationship with this versatile material.

On the one hand, plastic has allowed for widespread use of sterile medical supplies, bolstering healthcare around the world. It has created lightweight packaging, reducing transportation costs and making food more easily accessible to those with disabilities. It has improved safety through advanced sports helmets and crumple zones on cars that increase crash survival rates.

On the other hand, the environmental impact is absolutely enormous. A whopping 300 million tons of plastic is produced around the globe every year, only a tiny fraction of which gets recycled. Plastic isn't biodegradable, so it accumulates year after year, clogging up landfills, polluting waters, and endangering wildlife. Traditional manufacturing processes using petroleum is also an incredible burden on the environment, so while it might be too early to tell the impact the PEF developed by Kanan's team will have, it is essential that we keep working toward a solution for this massive, unignorable problem.

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