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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A fully degradable bioplastic derived from shrimp shells and silk protein could provide solutions for planet-clogging plastics as well as implantable medical devices.
Today, humans produce 300 million tons of plastic per year and recycle only 3%, leaving the other 97% to break down in oceans and landfills where they harm the food chain and our environment. A large number of bioplastics on the market today are made from cellulose, a plant-based polysaccharide material, finding application in packaging and simple containers for food or drinks. However, engineers have been unable to shape these materials into complex 3D shapes while providing the hardiness that is characteristic of conventional plastics.
Wyss Institute researchers have developed a fully degradable bioplastic by isolating a material called chitosan found in shrimp shells and forming a laminate with silk fibroin protein that mimics the microarchitecture of natural insect cuticle. The new material, called “Shrilk”, can be used to manufacture objects without the environmental threat posed by conventional synthetic plastics, and then it rapidly biodegrades when placed in compost releasing nitrogen-rich nutrient fertilizer. Because chitosan and fibroin are both used in FDA-approved devices, Shrilk also may be useful for creating implantable foams, films and scaffolds for surgical closure, wound healing, tissue engineering, and regenerative medicine applications.
In this video, the team grew a California Blackeye pea plant in soil enriched with its chitosan bioplastic over a three-week period—demonstrating the material’s potential to encourage plant growth once it is returned to the environment.
Judah Folkman Professor of Vascular Biology at Harvard Medical School and the Vascular Biology Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, and Professor of Bioengineering at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. He received his B.A., M.A., M.Phil., M.D. and Ph.D. from Yale University. Ingber is a pioneer in the field of biologically inspired engineering, and at the Wyss Institute, he currently leads a multifaceted effort to develop breakthrough bioinspired technologies to advance healthcare and to improve sustainability.