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VIDEO: Can bioplastics help shape a more sustainable future? | Problem Solved

Mike DiGirolamo holding a boomerang made from PHA from the ARC centre for bioplastics and biocomposites on the University of Queensland Campus. Image by Nicolas Rakotopare for Mongabay.

  • Humanity produces roughly 400 million metric tons of plastic each year, yet only recycles or reuses 9%, at most, of all the plastic collected.
  • The global waste crisis is evident in the immense amount of plastic trash that ends up polluting the land, water, atmosphere, wildlife, and even our bodies.
  • While nations are currently locked in negotiations to design a global treaty meant to rein in plastic production and address plastic pollution, researchers are working to develop fully biodegradable and naturally occurring plastic polymers known as polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs).
  • In this episode of Mongabay’s “Problem Solved” video series, we take a look at how PHAs are made, and what else experts say needs to be done to combat the global plastic pollution crisis.

SYDNEY — As the world struggles to contain plastic pollution, eco-friendly alternatives to plastics have garnered attention in recent years.

One example: Polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs), a naturally occurring bio-based polymer, have been touted as a potential solution. Biotechnology startups have enthusiastically embraced the functional and economic viability of this biodegradable product along with other alternatives, recognizing their potential to replace many household plastics, including the commonly used polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP), both of which are manufactured from fossil fuels and used to make bottles, food containers, packaging, films, textiles and more.

Researchers at the ARC Training Centre for Bioplastics and Biocomposites at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, have developed their own version of PHAs. It’s sourced from sugarcane and “won’t leave a legacy in any natural environment,” Steven Pratt, director of the center, told Mongabay. “It degrades easily in soil, freshwater and saltwater.”

Mongabay visited the Brisbane research facility to take a closer look at how PHAs are made and spoke with scientists about their potential applications.

While the potential for PHAs is promising, this plastic alternative faces development challenges, including its practicality and the need to rapidly scale up production.

Sources Mongabay spoke with emphasized that while dealing with plastic waste effectively is important, it’s vital that the world agree to a global plan to significantly reduce plastic production in the first place.

Watch the video here:

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Plastic waste is a global environmental and health crisis, and has contributed to a dangerous breach in the chemical pollution planetary boundary, potentially threatening life as we know it. Very little of the 400 million metric tons of plastic produced annually gets recycled: just 9%, or less, of all plastic collected is ever processed for reuse. The rest ends up in landfills, is burned, or pollutes land, seas and sky.

The world’s nations are currently negotiating the terms of a global plastics treaty aimed at addressing plastic production and waste. However, progress has been stalled, most recently by three large petrostates: Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Plastic bottles ready for recycling. Image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay.

A coalition of more than 60 high-ambition nations want a legally binding treaty aimed at addressing plastic production and consumption from cradle to grave, while less ambitious nations, including the United States and China, have favored a non-legally binding agreement that focuses more on recycling. However, even if recycling is greatly improved, vast amounts of microplastics will persist in the environment.

Banner Image: Mike DiGirolamo holding a boomerang produced by the ARC Training Centre for Bioplastics and Biocompositses. Image by Nicolas Rakotopare for Mongabay.

Abhishyant Kidangoor is a staff writer at Mongabay. Find him on 𝕏 @AbhishyantPK.

Mike DiGirolamo is a host & associate producer at Mongabay based in Sydney. He co-hosts and edits the Mongabay Newscast. Find him on LinkedInBluesky, and Instagram.

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