“Our new process produces 'plastic' from marine microorganisms that completely recycle into organic waste.”
Israel-based researchers have developed a new process to produce a polymer that is derived from microorganisms that feed on seaweed. In a statement, scientists from Tel Aviv University (TAU) said that the bio-plastic polymers can be produced without land or freshwater.
The launch of the innovation was the result of a multidisciplinary collaboration between Dr. Alexander Golberg of TAU's Porter School of Environmental and Earth Sciences (@TelAvivUni) and Prof. Michael Gozin of TAU’s School of Chemistry. Their research was recently published in the journal Bioresource Technology.
“Plastics take hundreds of years to decay. So, bottles, packaging and bags create plastic 'continents' in the oceans, endanger animals and pollute the environment," said Golberg. "Plastic is also produced from petroleum products, which has an industrial process that releases chemical contaminants as a by-product.”
He added: "A partial solution to the plastic epidemic is bio-plastics, which don't use petroleum and degrade quickly. But bio-plastics also have an environmental price: To grow the plants or the bacteria to make the plastic requires fertile soil and fresh water, which many countries, including Israel, don't have. Our new process produces 'plastic' from marine microorganisms that completely recycle into organic waste."
The issue of plastic pollution in the world’s ocean captured the public’s imaginations last year.
According to the United Nations, plastic accounts for up to 90% of all pollutants in the world’s ocean, yet there are few comparable, environmentally-friendly alternatives to the material.
The researchers harnessed microorganisms that feed on seaweed to produce a bio-plastic polymer called polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA). "Our raw material was multicellular seaweed, cultivated in the sea," Golberg said. "These algae were eaten by single-celled microorganisms, which also grow in very salty water and produce a polymer that can be used to make bio-plastic.”
He explained: “There are already factories that produce this type of bio-plastic in commercial quantities, but they use plants that require agricultural land and freshwater. The process we process we propose will enable countries with a shortage of freshwater, such as Israel, China and India, to switch from petroleum-derived plastics to bio-degradable plastics.”
According to Goldberg, the new study could “revolutionise” the world’s efforts to clean the oceans, without affecting arable land and without using freshwater.
“We are now conducting basic research to find the best bacteria and algae that would be most suitable for producing polymers for bio-plastics with different properties,” Goldberg said.