VIDEO: How to make plastic truly biodegradable

Graduate student Ivan Jayapurna explains the research in Ting Xu’s lab to create a plastic that decomposes after use, addressing the pollution problem from single-use plastics. (UC Berkeley video by Roxanne Makasdjian and Jeremy Snowden)

The world produces more than 380 million tons of plastic every year, and by some reports, more than a third of that is for products used once and then tossed away, ending up as litter or landfill. Some 10 million tons of this plastic end up in the oceans each year, littering beaches and killing sea life.

UC Berkeley’s Ting Xu and her students have come up with one solution for the global problem of single-use plastics: embed enzymes in the plastic, so that once the bag or cup is no longer wanted, it will self-destruct with a little heat and water.

In a study published this spring, they showed that this method could make some plastics — the polylactic acid and polycaprolactone plastics used in many so-called compostable plastic bags — dissolve within days. This occurs without producing microplastics; instead, the plastic is broken down into its chemical constituents, which feed the microbes in the soil.

student holding plastic bottle and plastic bag

Ivan Jayapurna explains the process of embedding enzymes in plastics to make them self-destruct after use. (Click to view UC Berkeley YouTube video by Roxanne Makasdjian and Jeremy Snowden)

Xu hopes to make the technique more practicable, and a new four-year, $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) starting Sept. 1 could help her achieve that. She will lead a group that includes Berkeley’s Corinne Scown, Alfredo Alexander-Katz of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Jared Lewis of Indiana University and Emiko Zumbro of the Mitre Corporation in Virginia.

“This grant puts UC Berkeley on the map for plastic issues,” said Xu, professor of materials science and engineering and of chemistry.

The grant was one of eight announced last week by NSF, totaling $16 million.

“NSF’s investment will advance the creation of a circular plastics economy that makes manufacturing more sustainable and helps protect our health and environmental well-being,” said Susan Margulies, NSF assistant director for engineering. “In the future, our manufacturing and recycling systems could be redesigned so that the plastic waste no longer contaminates our oceans and lands.”

Check out the videos to learn more about Xu’s process for making biodegradable plastics, as demonstrated by graduate student Ivan Jayapurna, which could make forever plastics disappear — forever.

In a PBS NOVA video about plastics, Ting Xu explains her process for making compostable plastics, and how the process could help solve the problem of pollution from single-use plastics. Click here to jump to Ting Xu’s segment. (Video courtesy of PBS NOVA)

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