Researchers are attacking the problem of plastic pollution by cheaply developing biodegradable plastics. Regular plastic is derived from oil and tends to have a life that lasts for thousands of years, hence the islands of plastic waste that have been found floating in the oceans and littering the world’s beaches. Biodegradable plastic is derived from plants, but thus far the process of creating it tends to be very expensive, involving lots of fertilizer, land, and tanks of fresh water. The process feeds bacteria with fats and other substances derived from sugarcane or corn. Garbage bags and other products, priced at a premium, made of biodegradable plastic are already available. But bioplastic is not yet price competitive with the regular kind.
Now, according Anthropene, a group of Israeli scientists has developed a way to create bioplastic in sea water. The process combines seaweed and a microbe called Haloferax Mediterranei. The most productive seaweed seems to be a species called Ulva lactuca, or sea lettuce.
Groups of researchers have been using seaweed to create bioplastic for the past few years. The Israeli method seems to be the most promising to date. Seaweed can be cultivated and harvested or even grown offshore and then combined with the microbe to create biodegradable plastic. If the resulting plastic is strong enough and can be created at a low enough cost on an industrial scale, biodegradable plastic could start replacing the more conventional kind to create shopping bags, straws, and other products. The day that happens is still in the future, however.
In the meantime, the Israeli team is experimenting with different combinations of seaweed and microbes to find out what kinds of plastic can be produced and what its properties turn out to be. The latest findings have been published in the journal Bioresource Technology.