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Finding a low-carbon alternative to plastic bagasse tableware

Finding a low-carbon alternative to plastic - bagasse tableware

Ms. Zhu's efforts were inspired by her first visit to the United States in 2007. Ms. Zhu, who grew up in China, said she was surprised by the widespread use of single-use plastic plates, bowls and cutlery in the United States.


"(I) thought, 'Can we use more sustainable materials? she said in a statement accompanying the study.


Her concern is easy to understand. More than 8 million tons of plastic waste is dumped into the ocean each year, and only about 14 percent of the 78 million tons of plastic packaging produced in 2019 is recycled.


In their search for low-carbon alternatives to plastic, Zhu and her colleagues focused on two widely available materials: bamboo and bagasse, or sugarcane pulp. The researchers twisted fine bamboo fibers with coarse bamboo fibers made from bagasse to form a material that could be molded into a stable and biodegradable container.


To improve water resistance, the researchers added alkyl dimer (AKD), an environmentally friendly chemical widely used in the food industry. The results exceeded their expectations, producing a material superior to current commercial biodegradable food containers, including egg cartons.


While conventional plastics such as plastic bags and disposable cups can take up to 450 years to degrade, Zhu's "green" tableware begins to decompose 30-45 days after being buried. The substance loses its shape completely after 60 days.


But the benefits don't stop there. Zhu and her colleagues say they have developed a material that has a much smaller carbon footprint than plastic.


"The manufacturing process of the new product emits 97 percent less carbon dioxide than commercially available plastic containers and 65 percent less than paper products and biodegradable plastics," the study says.


Because cost is a key factor in the product's success, Zhu and her colleagues are working to improve the energy efficiency of the manufacturing process in order to compete with plastics. While cups made from this new material cost twice as much ($2,333/ton) as biodegradable plastic ($4,750/ton), traditional plastic cups are still cheaper ($2,177/ton).


"It's hard to ban people from using disposable containers because it's cheap and convenient," Zhu said. "But I believe a good solution is to use more sustainable materials and use biodegradable materials to make these disposable containers."

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