By Zak Stone
We're all used to plastic made from corn, but a new source for biodegradable plastics (and plastics not made from fossil fuels) might be tree sap.
Just like crude oil, sap from trees is sticky, viscous, and extracted by drilling. One day, the two substances may share a new feature in common: at the University of South Carolina researchers are figuring out the best way to use resin from conifers as the building blocks for plastic (albeit a more environmentally friendly version).
According to lead researcher Chuanbing Tang, the resin's richness in hydrocarbons (similar to petroleum) makes it a good fit for polymerization, the process whereby organic materials become plastic. Right now, those methods are in their infancy, unlike traditional petroleum-based plastics which have been given decades and millions of dollars in investment money to mature.
We're able to make materials that should break down more readily in the environment. And while an advantage to using a renewable resource to make plastic may be that we're never going to run out of it, the real benefit is environmental. "With a polymer framework derived from renewable sources, we're able to make materials that should break down more readily in the environment," adds Tang. Just like the corn-based plastics we've grown used to drinking iced coffees out of, plastics made from tree resin will be more susceptible to the bacteria responsible for decomposition.
So, the outcome could be less plastic bags tangling up marine life in the ocean, and more plastic bags in the compost pile.
Copyright 2013 by Fast Company. Reprinted with permission.