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Fully Biodegradable Plastic Straws in Testing

PHA resin beads

PHA resin beads (Dorothy Kozlowski, University of Georgia)

22 August 2018. A university research center and biodegradable plastics company are testing a new type of drink straw that degrades completely after use in normal soil and water conditions. A team from University of Georgia in Athens and RWDC Industries, a spin-off plastics company, is conducting the tests, funded by a $719,000 award from the Livability Challenge, a competition sponsored by the Temasek Foundation Ecosperity in Singapore.

The proposed biodegradable plastic straw is the work of researchers at Georgia’s New Materials Institute that studies polymers, fibers, and coatings that completely break down and return to nature. The team led by chemistry professor Jason Locklin, director of the institute, is seeking a commercially feasible solution to the growing problem of single-use plastic drink straws. According to the group Plastic Pollution Coalition, some 500 million plastic straws are used and discarded each day in the U.S. alone.

Locklin notes in a university statement that straws made from petroleum-based plastics can last forever. “Less than 10 percent of these plastics are recycled,” notes Locklin. “The 90 percent that aren’t recycled will ultimately fragment over time, and as micronized plastic, can end up in our soil, rivers and oceans — forever.” Many of the readily available non-petroleum plastics are made from polylactic acid, which can degrade, but requires industrial composting, under high temperature and humidity.

Locklin and colleagues study another non-petroleum-based polymer material known as polyhydroxyalkanoates, or PHAs. Like polylactic acid, PHAs are based on plant materials, but up to now have been held back by limited mechanical properties and high production costs, among other problems. The New Materials Institute is developing its own version of PHAs made from precursor materials called resins that the researchers say overcome these limitations and provide an alternative to petroleum-based plastics for straws to sip your drinks.

Their progress with PHAs convinced RWDC Industries, a plastics manufacturer in Athens, Georgia, to partner with the New Materials Institute in a presentation to the Livability Challenge. RWDC is also developing PHAs into more environmentally-friendly plastics, and is led by Daniel Carraway, with a doctorate in biotechnology from University of Georgia in 1996. The company also helps fund further development of the biodegradable plastic straw.

The team from the university and RWDC presented an early version of their proposed polymer to the Livability Challenge, which won the competition’s top prize on 11 July. The team now plans to produce and test prototype straws that biodegrade in soil, fresh water, and sea water. In addition, the researchers need to show the straws can be manufactured with consistent quality, and produced at a large enough scale to meet global demand.

“We have positioned the New Materials Institute to succeed in the critical step of translating these technologies beyond the laboratory scale,” says Carraway. “This straw will be the first of our fruits from these endeavors and the first product from what we view as a long-term partnership.”

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