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 the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have created a plastic material that's fully recyclable. It's called poly (diketoenamine) or PDK, and it can be disassembled at a molecular level and then reassembled into another object with a different texture, color and shape again and again without loss of performance or quality.
The researchers want to divert plastics from landfills and the oceans by incentivizing the recovery and reuse of plastics, which could be possible with polymers formed from PDKs. Plastics contain various additives, like dyes, fillers, or flame retardants and very few plastics can be recycled without loss in performance or aesthetics. Even the most recyclable plastic, PET - or poly (ethylene terephthalate) - is only recycled at a rate of 20-30%, with the rest typically going to incinerators or landfills, where the carbon-rich material takes centuries to decompose. All plastics, from water bottles to automobile parts, are made up of polymers, which are composed of repeating units of shorter carbon-containing compounds called monomers.
According to the researchers, the problem with many plastics is that the chemicals added to make them useful - such as fillers that make a plastic tough, or plasticizers that make a plastic flexible - are tightly bound to the monomers and stay in the plastic even after it's been processed at a recycling plant.
Unlike conventional plastics, the monomers of PDK plastic could be recovered and completely separated from any compounded additives simply by dunking the material in a highly acidic solution. The acid helps to break the bonds between the monomers and separate them from the chemical additives that give plastic its look and feel.
With PDKs, the immutable bonds of conventional plastics are replaced with reversible bonds that allow the plastic to be recycled more effectively. The researchers believe that their new recyclable plastic could be a good alternative to many non recyclable plastics in use today. Objects made with the material can then be reshaped, recolored and upcycled again and again and again. A watchband could become part of a keyboard, which could then be used to make a phone case.
The researchers plan to continue working on PDKs to develop variants with a wide range of thermal and mechanical properties. That would allow the material to be used for textiles, foams, 3D-printed materials and other applications. They are also looking at expanding the formulations by incorporating plant-based materials and other sustainable sources.
This work has been supported by the DOE’s Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) program.
FLO Materials is a startup launched to commercialize PDK plastic technology.