An invasive seaweed species from the Caribbean has been turned into a compostable plastic wrap that has the potential for mass production.
Furthermore, it may have the properties to transform the whole supply chain of this ubiquitous product used in huge quantities every day in restaurants around the world.
The breakthrough comes from the University of Leeds, in the UK, where Keeran Reed and his colleagues were looking to turn the brown seaweed species called sargassum, (Sargassum natans) which inundates the shores of Reed’s home of Trinidad and Tobago, into a sort of biopolymer.
Sargassum is made up of long chains of molecules similar to those found in conventional plastic. the researchers found that mixing it with acid, salt, and some chemicals rendered it thicker and pliable.
They then turned it into sheets of film like normal plastic wrap to study how it held up in heated conditions, and when thrown into the compost bin. Existing biodegradable plastics can take months, even more than a year, to break down in a compost heap. By contrast, the sargassum needed two to three weeks.
Despite this rapid decomposition, the films were robust and held together at temperatures of around 450°F (230°C). Also, the film didn’t leach out any of the chemicals when left in water over a period of 10 days, meaning it can be safely used to cover moist containers of food like chopped fruit.
“Studying the whole supply chain really is where ideas for sustainable materials make it or don’t. We want to find one best application for our material and study the environmental impact of pursuing it from the lab to the consumer,” Koon-Yang Lee at Imperial College London, part of the research team, told New Scientist.
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