The term "biodegradable" has been used over the past few years, to describe plastics or packaging that could potentially be metabolized by microorganisms in nature, with complete breakdown to CO2/Methane, water and biomass. However, there is significant confusion and controversy surrounding biodegradable plastics since many suppliers have used the term to loosely describe their material/packaging without specifying the conditions under which the material would degrade in nature. For instance, some plastics (like PLA) will only degrade under industrial composting conditions, while some others (like PHA) can break down under a wider range of conditions and environments (industrial, backyard, marine). Given this widespread confusion and the misuse of the "biodegradable" term, many global government and industry organizations have issued guidelines to restrict or eliminate the unqualified use of biodegradable as a descriptor of plastics or packaging. These include the European Commission guidelines (European Plastics Strategy) and the Federal Trade Commission Green Guides in the US.
In line with such guidelines, Ubuntoo's recommends that companies providing biodegradable materials, products or packaging:
1.Avoid unqualified use of the term "biodegradable" to describe their products
2.Any claim of biodegradability should be accompanied by a description of specific conditions and environments under which the material or product will undergo degradation in nature
3.It is strongly recommended that companies provide globally accepted certifications or testing for various biodegradability claims (such as the BPA certification for industrial composting)
Further in line with the position articulated by the European Commission as well as major CPG companies, Ubuntoo recommends that "biodegradable" plastics should not be considered a solution for littering (or worse a license to litter). Appropriate collection and end-of-life solutions (such as industrial composting or home composting) need to be put into place to avoid biodegradable plastics ending up as litter in the environment.
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Researchers from UNSW Sydney have discovered a biodegradable and recyclable plastic material created using banana plants.
Banana plantations account for large amounts of organic waste in the agricultural industry, with only 12% of the plant used commercially and the rest discarded. The UNSW project aims at using the fleshy pseudostem of the plant to harness its cellulosic properties for packaging and other useful products.
The study used a supply of banana pseudostem from the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney. Post this the cellulose was extracted for testing its efficiency in packaging. The pseudostem itself consists of about 90% water. The cellulose is extracted using a simple process:
The pseudostem is chopped into tiny pieces.
The pieces are dried and milled into a fine powder.
The powder is washed with soft chemicals.
Nano-cellulose is extracted from the process.
Upon processing, the nano-cellulose develops a consistency like baking paper.
The resultant material can be used in a number of applications like food packaging. It can be processed into varying thicknesses according to the required application.
Tests have confirmed that the material can break down organically in soil. It is also recyclable three times with no change in properties. Further tests confirmed food safety, with no material leaching observed in living cells.
The material can be processed into grocery bags and also holding trays for food products.
The research team suggests that the banana plantation industry equip themselves to convert pseudostems into powders, for supply to the packaging industry. Packaging manufacturers are recommended to equip themselves with processors to convert the nano cellulose powder into reliable packaging material.