IBM researchers today said they have identified a chemical catalyst that creates cheaper, biodegradable plastics from plants such as palm trees and beets that can be used to make a range of products, from eating utensils to medical devices.
The researchers say that while biodegradable forks and spoons already exist on store shelves, consumers often opt for more inexpensive petroleum-based alternatives. They say this new breakthrough, developed with Standford University scientists at IBM Research’s Almaden lab in San Jose, California, will lead to cheaper products and less waste.
“What’s exciting about this discovery is that we now have a cheaper way to convert plants into common consumer plastics that decompose over time, providing an alternative to recycling plastics,” said IBM Research computational chemist Gavin O. Jones. “Making biodegradable plastics mainstream means less impact on our solid waste systems.”
The current method to convert plants into biodegradable plastics imparts heavy metals into the process. While used in small amounts, these heavy metals are difficult to remove, remain in the material and do not decompose over time.
The new catalyst is an organic substance that lowers the energy required for the conversion from plant to plastic to occur. The scientists say it does not contain heavy metals and can thus degrade in the environment just like the plastic itself.
Today’s news follows a plastics recycling process IBM researchers announced in late June. That recycling process converts BPA-leaching plastics into environmentally safe material for water purification and medical devices. IBM Research says this technological advance that could also lead to less plastic waste and cheaper recycled materials manufacturers can use to produce a variety of products.