From bags to bottles, every year about 13 million tons of plastic flows into our oceans, according to a U.N. report published in 2018. If the situation continues, our oceans could contain more plastic than fish by 2050.
Birds and other animals often mistake plastic waste entangled in seaweed in the ocean or lying strewn on beaches as food.
Different marine creatures swallow or become entangled by plastic debris, often times causing injury or death. Every year 100,000 marine animals die from swallowing or becoming entangled in plastic debris in the ocean, according to the U.N. report.
A team of researchers at Tel Aviv University in Israel has discovered a way to make biodegradable plastic from microorganisms that feed on seaweed.
The scientists have developed a way to make biodegradable plastic by cultivating natural polymers from microorganisms that feast on seaweed algae.
Dr. Alexander Golberg, the brainchild of the project stated that the concept is “to produce polymers, which are used in plastics inside the single-cell marine organisms.”
“Since the organisms produce it, the polymers are biodegradable, which means that they will not take a lot of time in the sea and they will be decomposed very fast, that’s a major difference from the regular plastic,” explained Golberg.
Golberg said the microorganisms need food to make these polymers and the food they use are seaweeds.
“Seaweeds are marine organisms, which we can grow in the sea without any use of arable land and drinking water. And that’s why our process is very different from all others proposed today,” said Golberg.
The marine manufactured bioplastic has many uses in everyday life, said professor Michael Gozin from the university’s School of Chemistry.
“This could be a revolutionary product with a really low cost with a target price of about one dollar per kilogram, said Gozin.
“This is polyester; polyesters are usually made from oil, but here it’s manufactured by organisms,” Gozin elaborated. “These plastics could be used for production of clothing, of food packaging for containers, and many other applications,” continued Gozin.
The team is currently doing preliminary research to find the best bacteria and algae to produce polymers for bioplastics.
Maya Jacobs, CEO of the Israeli environmental advocacy group Zalul said it is a step in the right direction.
She added, “The best thing that happened to the world is that China declared that it won’t receive any more international garbage and therefore suddenly everybody is piling up with their own garbage and they understand that they need to find a solution.”
China’s decision has sparked other countries to find ways to deal with their plastic waste problem. It has encouraged research developments of biodegradable plastics, Jacobs stated.
“Suddenly we find that there is a lot of new ideas. We see seaweed becoming into new kinds of materials and hemp which is made out of cannabis and there are new kinds of germs that are developed that eat the plastic and can create a solution,” enthused Jacobs.
Jacobs stated that the project requires a lot more money for more research to be carried out. She also discussed the need to understand the impact of these new biodegradable materials and the need to develop real markets.
“Once you see that there is more demand, the prices will come down, because right now the prices are still quite high,” said Jacobs.
Scientists in Tel Aviv and elsewhere remain hopeful that the development of bioplastics could help reduce the world’s plastic waste problem.
Includes reporting from The Associated Press