Biodegradable Plastic

A potato that produces natural plastic may soon be a reality. But unlike the original plastic potato, Mr. Potato Head, this new plant will have profound impacts on the nature of plastic and its ability to exist in harmony with the environment.

Scientists now are perfecting a system of growing organic plastics rather than manufacturing them. Unlike typical plastics in use today, these new plastics are not petroleum-based and will biodegrade.

“It’s a new wave in the life sciences,” said Clinton Fuller, a biochemist and professor at the University of Massachusetts. “It will give us whole new parameters to solve problems.”

Fuller, who has been researching natural plastics for five years, said the work has broad scientific support because of its potential long-range practicality.

The idea is to manipulate certain types of bacteria to produce natural polymers in a process similar to brewing beer. When key nutrients are withheld, the bacteria produce the plastic in granular form as a food source to survive on later.

Once harvested, these biopolymers can be transformed into useful, everyday plastic items. Only they won’t be with us 100 years from now.

In a second wave of technology, building upon this first one, Fuller said geneticists are now working on transferring these natural production systems into potato plants, among others.

Already an English company is producing plastic items on a commercial basis by using bacterial polymers produced in huge vats. The Imperial Chemical Company has been contracted to produce natural plastic bottles for a German firm, he said.

In Japan, where landfill space is already limited, the Japanese Biodegradable Plastics Society has been formed. Sixty industries and three ministries of the government are part of the society, said Fuller, who made a recent fact-finding mission to Japan. A similar society is being organized in the United States.

Fuller calls these new plastics “nature’s ultimate recycling process” because they are part of a regenerating system created out of living material. In its most basic form, the system involves taking carbon, oxygen and hydrogen, making something useful from those elements, and then returning them to their original states.

“This system doesn’t use chemicals or harm the environment,” he said. “Instead of filling our landfills with material that won’t go away, we can create a natural recycling system.”

(Tip/Stat) In 1909, Leo Backland patented Bakelite, the first commercially successful plastic.

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