Could biodegradable “bioplastic” save us from plastic pollution?

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Plastic pollution floating in the port of Hinnavaru in the Maldives (Getty)

Every year, more than eight million tons of plastic ends up in the oceans, threatening life around the world – but could it?

A Chinese research team has found a new method of producing bioplastics based on biodegradable, biocompatible and easily transformed proteins.

The research was published in the journal .

There are many, but so far bioplastics made from natural materials like starch or synthetic biomaterials like polylactic acid have not yielded results, showing durability, biocompatibility and/or inadequate biodegradability in most cases.

Creating some bioplastics often requires complex, energy-intensive processing methods and toxic chemicals.

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A team led by Jingjing Li and Yawei Liu (Chinese Academy of Sciences, Changchun, China), along with Bo Wei (First Medical Center of PLA General Hospital) have created new bioplastics whose properties can be “tweaked” as needed.

The researchers developed two lysine-rich proteins and produced them in bacterial cultures, creating bioplastics that can be soft or hard.

The team also used wet spinning to produce biofibers as strong as some biotech spider silks.

Researchers think it might be possible to make toys out of this new, non-toxic bioplastic that can be dyed with food coloring.

This material could also be used to seal wounds, the researchers believe.

Plastic pollution is affecting now and is expected to quadruple by 2050, according to a report by wildlife protection group WWF last week.

The report found that 88% of marine species, from plankton to whales, are affected by contamination.

Pollution hotspots such as the Mediterranean, East China and Yellow Sea, and Arctic sea ice are already .

The WWF-commissioned report reviewed 2,590 studies and found that by the end of the century, marine areas more than two and a half times the size of Greenland could exceed environmentally dangerous microplastic concentration thresholds.

The amount of marine microplastics could then increase 50 times, the wildlife charity has warned.

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This is based on projections that plastic production will more than double by 2040, leading to a quadrupling of plastic debris in the ocean by 2050.

Heike Vesper, marine program director at WWF Germany, said: “All the evidence suggests that plastic contamination of the ocean is irreversible. Once distributed in the ocean, plastic waste is almost impossible to recover.

“It is steadily degrading and the concentration of micro- and nanoplastics will continue to increase for decades. Targeting the causes of plastic pollution is much more effective than cleaning up afterwards.

“If governments, industry and society act in unison now, they can limit the plastic crisis yet.”

Researchers warn that endangered species could be pushed to extinction by plastic pollution.

Watch: Big brands call for a global pact to stop plastic pollution

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