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Science & Technology

Microplastics less a problem when plastics are made from plants

Plastic containers, bottles and flip flops end up in our waste stream and in our environment. Weather and erosion can turn them into tiny particles called microplastics. Tire wear on the road is also a huge source.

Microplastics are typically too small to even notice. But you do see them if you try hard enough.

“For instance you could go onto our San Diego beaches and start looking at the sand and you can start seeing little particles that are actually pieces of plastic,” said Michael Burkart, professor of biochemistry at UC San Diego. “And the problem is they have gotten into our food supply and into our water supply and they are contaminating the world around us. We have found them in every human organ.”


The reason microplastics are all around and even in us is because petroleum-based plastics last for hundreds of years. In our lifetimes they simply don’t go away.

But degradable plastics, made from plants, do.

Research at UCSD has now proven that those earth-friendly plastics disappear in a matter of a few months. Researchers ground up plant-based plastics into very small bits and tested them in several natural environments.

“After 120 days we couldn’t even find the particles. They completely disappeared,” Burkart said. “Whereas the product we tested against, EVA (or) Ethylene Vinyl Acetate, commonly found in things like shoes and flip-flops; those had not changed at all over the same course of time and they continue to persist.”

The plant-based plastics are consumed by bacteria and other microorganisms. That makes plant-based plastics an effective way to deal with the huge problem of plastic pollution. In fact, Burkart says some of those tiny bacteria found the biodegradable plastic, developed in UCSD labs, to be tasty and nutritious.


“And we found microorganisms in that compost that could live completely off of our bioplastics as a sole food source, which was really exciting,” he said.

The study, co-written by Michael Burkart, appeared in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.

Burkart and some colleagues at UCSD have founded a company called Algenesis Materials. It’s devoted to creating products, in partnership with industry, that find ways to use plant-based plastics as a practical alternative to petroleum plastics that don’t degrade.