Single-use tableware such as cups, plates and takeout boxes are a huge source of waste. Even when compost is possible, they can still be dumped in landfills, where they will not decompose without the specific conditions that often occur in composting facilities.
Plus, eco-friendly food containers are often more expensive than plastic and the upfront cost can be a hurdle for both consumers and restaurants. Now, the scientists say they have found a solution: the tableware is biodegradable in 60 days, and more affordable than biodegradable plastic because it’s made from bagasse and bamboo.
Hongli Zhu, an assistant professor at Northeastern University, is the co-author of an article introducing the new material in the journal Matter. When she first arrived in the US in 2007, she was amazed at the amount of disposable plastic in shops, restaurants and trash cans.
Her team at Northeastern University decided to start research with bagasse, or bagasse byproducts of the extraction of sugarcane. By 2021, Brazil alone is expected to produce 39.5 million tons of sugar from sugarcane and for every 10 tons of sugarcane crushed during the extraction process, about three tons of bagasse will be produced.
This makes the new material cheap and environmentally friendly, as it is inherently waste. “The problem is that the cane fibers are very short, so from a mechanical point of view, the waste from sugarcane is not too durable,” she said. (Hence) We have created a hybrid material that blends shorter strands with long bamboo fibers. . . [để] improve mechanical strength. The pulverized powder from the two fibers is then molded into plates, bowls and containers.
She added, bowls, cups and containers made only of bamboo would be more expensive, and still need water use and emissions production associated with growing and harvesting more bamboo. This is also the reason why Zhu doesn’t use wood pulp, a popular compostable packaging material.
“Certainly that material is biodegradable, but the cost is much higher than using waste from the sugar industry and from an environmental standpoint, if we use wood, we need it,” she said. have to plant trees to do that. Her team also avoids fibers made from recycled paper, as they may contain residual ink or chemicals.
And, unlike plastic that needs to be recycled (and usually it doesn’t; in New York City, 5% of plastic dishes are put into the recycling system) or PLA bioplastics needs industrial and thermal annealing degrees above 60 degrees Celsius, bamboo products and bagasse can be buried in the ground.
When the Northeasten University team buried the tableware in the ground, it started to deform after 30 days and completely lost its shape and then faded away after 60 days. “The final chemical ingredient is cellulose – it’s the same chemical compound that goes into your yard,” Zhu said.
The result, the researchers say, is clean, sustainable, solid bamboo and bagasse utensils with the production process emitting 97% less CO2 than polystyrene and 67% less. compared with paper products and PLA.
Production costs are also cheaper than biodegradable plastic, at $ 2,333 / ton compared with $ 4,750 / ton for PLA production and close to polystyrene, at $ 2,177 / ton.
“When we think about plastic alternatives, we should think about costs,” Zhu said. Ultimately, we want it to be so that customers can buy these products… the cost needs to be competitive with plastics. I think nature has an answer. ”