While traditional plastic or biodegradable polymers take centuries or high temperatures to degrade, it only takes 60 days for this non-toxic and eco-friendly tableware to do the same.
Scientists have developed a set of revolutionary biodegradable tableware as the "green" answer to single-use tableware like cups, plates, and to-go containers that are a huge source of waste. Made from sugarcane waste and bamboo, they reportedly don't sacrifice convenience or functionality and are said to take a lot less time to break down once discarded. While traditional plastic or biodegradable polymers take centuries or high temperatures to degrade, it only takes 60 days for this non-toxic and eco-friendly tableware to do the same. Scientists have also managed to make them financially feasible for consumers as other eco-friendly food containers are often much more expensive than plastic.
The new material was introduced in a paper recently published in the journal, Matter, where corresponding author Hongli (Julie) Zhu of Northeastern University revealed the inspiration behind the innovation. "To be honest, the first time I came to the US in 2007, I was shocked by the available one-time use plastic containers in the supermarket," she explained. "It makes our life easier, but meanwhile, it becomes waste that cannot decompose in the environment." Zhu soon saw many more plastic bowls, plates, and utensils being thrown into the trash bin at seminars and parties and thought: "Can we use a more sustainable material?"
In their search for an alternative for plastic-based food containers, Zhu and her colleagues turned to bamboos and one of the largest food-industry waste products: bagasse, aka sugarcane pulp. They wound together long and thin bamboo fibers with short and thick bagasse fibers to form a tight network that was then molded into containers that were mechanically stable and biodegradable. Aside from being strong enough to hold liquids as plastic does and cleaner than other biodegradables made from recycled materials that might not be fully de-inked, the new green tableware also starts decomposing after being in the soil for 30-45 days and completely loses its shape after two months.
This #coffee cup is #biodegradable! Researchers from @NortheasternCOE made tableware from #sugarcane and #bamboo that can break down in 60 days. In contrast, regular plastic can take up to 450 years to #decompose. Read more in @Matter_CP https://t.co/H7JaDR6wo3 pic.twitter.com/BhyscggF31— Cell Press (@CellPressNews) November 12, 2020
"Making food containers is challenging. It needs more than being biodegradable," said Zhu. "On one side, we need a material that is safe for food; on the other side, the container needs to have good wet mechanical strength and be very clean because the container will be used to take hot coffee, hot lunch." Researchers increased the oil and water resistance of the molded tableware by adding alkyl ketene dimer (AKD) — a widely used eco-friendly chemical in the food industry — thereby ensuring the sturdiness of the product when wet. The addition of this ingredient also proved helpful in increasing the new tableware's performance in mechanical strength, grease resistance, and non-toxicity when compared to other commercial biodegradable food containers.
Explaining how they settled on a hybrid of sugarcane and bamboo for the new material, Zhu said: "The problem is sugar fiber is short, so from a mechanical stance, waste from sugar cane is not so strong. We made a hybrid, mixing the shorter fibers with long bamboo fiber... [to] enhance the mechanical strength." On the other hand, using bamboo alone would be more expensive and involve all the water use and emissions associated with growing and harvesting more bamboo, reports Fast Company. This is also why Zhu stayed away from wood pulp. "That's biodegradable for sure, but the cost is much higher than using waste from the sugar industry, and from an environmental point of view, if we use wood, we need to plant trees to do it," she said.
"The new product’s manufacturing process emits 97% less CO2 than commercially available plastic containers and 65% less CO2 than paper products and biodegradable plastic." #Sustainability https://t.co/Vkdxctbh5Q— Green Street USA (@GreenStreetUSA1) November 16, 2020
"It is difficult to forbid people to use one-time-use containers because it’s cheap and convenient," she added. "But I believe one of the good solutions is to use more sustainable materials, to use biodegradable materials to make these one-time use containers."