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 Shellworks is a project that was started by four design students from The Royal College of Art and Imperial College. They found a way to create a biodegradable and recyclable bioplastic using lobster shell waste.
The Shellworks team developed a manufacturing machine to product this bioplastic. They believe that this will be the new greatest alternative to single-use plastic. The discarded seafood shells are combined with vinegar to create a bioplastic that can be molded with different degrees of thickness, flexibility, and opacity.
One of the main ingredients in the process of producing the bioplastic is chitlin. Chitlin is a biopolymer found in exoskeletons of crustaceans and insects, this ingredient is also very abundant. A series of machines extract, form and recycle the material, which could be used to replace a significant amount of the single use plastic we use every day.
The machines included in the process are:
Shelly is a small scale extractor to lower the barriers to entry for experimentation with the bioplastic. The extractor is designed to offer complete control over each parameter of the process in order to allow for further experimentation at the polymer level of the material.
Sheety is a controlled environment that makes perfectly flat sheets.
Vaccy is a steamy vacuum former. The steam makes the material flexible, and the vacuum forms it over a mould.
Dippy is a heated dip moulder. Heated arms dip in and out of the chitosan solution to make 3D forms.
The team continue to test the concept and believe that they can prove that chitosan bioplastic could become a great alternative to plastic waste.