Makers of plastic bags find greener alternative

Written by By Elisabeth Torrens, CNN

The quest to find a replacement for plastic bags is on. With almost half of the world’s global surface covered by plastic, it may seem impossible to eliminate the waste. But inspiration is beginning to emerge, as is a way of mitigating its effects.

One such alternative is being developed by Japanese plastic bag manufacturer NTT DO Corp. Its new plastic bag is made from small organisms and even plant-based cellulose, meaning it can be carbon neutral — a feat completely to be accomplished by Alcoa, the world’s largest producer of aluminum.

When Alcoa hears about its plastic bag alternative, it can swap the harvested microorganisms from NTT DO Corp.’s new bag to its own line of raw materials for printing.

The result is that only one liter of gas (down from 30 liters) is used to produce each plastic bag. Instead of releasing greenhouse gas emissions and other harmful pollutants, these plastic bags are better for the environment than any other plastic.

“This eliminates the problem of too much plastic,” said Donnell Bennett, Vice President of Quality, Product Management and Technology Development at Alcoa.

Traditional plastic bags, on the other hand, are only four times as large as the microbes they contain, and have been responsible for more than 60% of all plastic packaging waste and 7.5% of the human impact on the environment.

Plastics need to be hard to break down, as this content represents a photo posted by Chemikal Underground, a news photographer from the US covering the Washington Chemical, Petroleum and Atomic Industrial Alliance ‘Chemical Summit’ in D.C. This coal-fed unit processes carbon-dioxide-based coal as a technique for producing synthetic polyester fiber. © Joe Sargent/Chemikal Underground

Some may still scoff at the idea of replacing traditional plastic bags with one made from living organisms. But Alcoa’s plastic bags are different because they are more closely to plant-based cellulose than plastic itself.

Consequently, these bio-biodegradable bags have been tested by Alcoa in deserts in South Africa, where the Tuqoshora (booming Desert Cat) is found.

“We’ve been able to create a wide spectrum of products, ” Bennett said. “The plant-based product can be used as food-grade raw material for the production of paper, and the hydrophobic, aquatic polyethylene used as a heat-resistant coating for land use applications.”

NTT DO Corp. is developing a bio-biodegradable plastic bag, along with Alcoa. It will be used for incineration. © Getty Images

While the plastic industry makes up only 1% of global CO2 emissions, plastics are the third largest component of the entire emissions mix, according to the International Monetary Fund.

“All of our waste is going to be making its way to the landfills anyway,” said Bennett. “The problem is that about 75% of the landfill space is unusable. So you have a tremendous amount of land that is being taken up for something that will have no value in the short term.”

The costs involved in making similar plastic bags from non-biodegradable plants, like xylem (tree cellulose) or cellulose from soybeans, are high, and simply not affordable by most companies. The renewable nature of this material gives these companies an advantage.

Of course, bio-biodegradable plastic bags are still not a sure thing. However, this is the first time that plastic has been produced at commercial scale — with the Alcoa raw material — in an environment that’s alkaline, and not acidic. This is compared to traditional plastic, which can undergo microbes’s adverse reactions in every environment it touches, and could more easily break down into any number of compounds — including petroleum or alkyl acids.

Since these material features are one of the first factors to be considered by ecologists, Bennett expects the success rate of these bags to be high. “Because we’re looking at completely different things, we believe that the commercialization process will be very fast. But it’s difficult to make predictions, with so many variables involved.”

In addition to the other environment-friendly features of this plastic bag, these are made from light, beautiful, flexible, non-flammable material.

“These are the things that are attracting people’s interest,” said Bennett. “Our lab tests confirm that we are creating a product that reduces the risk of plastics separation. It’s very attractive to developers in the food packaging, portable electronics, and even medical fields.”

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