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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The conversion of waste materials into fuels is an attractive approach to simultaneously produce fuels and mitigate pollution. The Chemistry department of Swansea University is developing photocatalysts to drive this process with solar energy. Lignocellulosic biomass is the most abundant raw material on earth, but its utilisation for fuel production is limited to energy-intensive processes due to low solubility and reactivity at ambient conditions. This work is the first example of direct photochemical conversion of unprocessed waste biomass into clean hydrogen fuel. They adapted concepts of solar fuels research for biomass valorisation by replacing commonly used sacrificial electron donors with waste. Through protection of CdS quantum dots with a CdOx layer to overcome the well-documented photocorrosion of CdS, they developed an efficient and robust photocatalyst. This visible-light responsive system produces H2 fuel from various types of unprocessed lignocellulose such as wood, grass and waste paper at ambient conditions using sunlight as the sole energy input. They have recently extended this approach to the photochemical generation of hydrogen fuel from plastics. Plastic waste has become a growing environmental challenge of global dimensions that urgently requires new mitigation technologies. Using their CdS/CdOx photocatalyst, they can generate H2 fuel from common plastics such as PET, PLA and PU upon solar irradiation. During this process, the plastics are degraded to useful organic compounds, e.g. photochemical treatment of PET generates terephthalic acid, one of the precursors needed to produce new PET. They can use real-world plastic waste cut from an old dirty water bottle without lowering the performance of their catalyst. They aim for this low-energy process to become a complement to conventional recycling, targeting mixed and contaminated waste that is currently challenging to recycle.
Dr Moritz Kuehnel is a new lecturer in the recently re-opened Chemistry Department at Swansea University. His area of expertise are: Photocatalysis, Electrochemistry, CO2 reduction,H2 evolution,Biomass utilisation,Fluorine chemistry
Professor at Swansea University & Co-Head of Department