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Researchers say plastic is 'indispensable' so they're trying to make it more sustainable

Some 500,000 tonnes of plastic waste from the EU end up in the sea every year.

Image: Shutterstock/Rich Carey

RESEARCHERS IN IRELAND are trying to make plastic more sustainable and environmentally friendly.

Plastic doesn’t degrade or rust in the same way other, more expensive materials do. It can take hundreds, if not thousands, of years to break down fully. 

Some 500,000 tonnes of plastic waste, much of it single-use plastic, from the European Union end up in the sea every year and the European Commission has proposed that single-use plastics be banned across the EU.

By 2050, it is likely our oceans will be populated with more plastic than fish

Researchers at Athlone Institute of Technology have noted that, despite its detrimental effect on the environment, plastic has become “indispensable” to modern living and cutting down on food waste – meaning it needs to be made more sustainable.

Prolonging shelf-life of food 

Dr Ian Major, programme leader at the IT’s Materials Research Institute, said the use of plastic in food packaging can actually lessen the environmental impact of food waste by extending its shelf-life from days to weeks.

“Polyethylene shrink wrap, for example, can extend the shelf-life of a refrigerated cucumber by a week, while beef that has been vacuum packed in multilayer plastic can last up to 45 days on the shelf.

By extending the shelf life of food, food waste is kept to a minimum.

“From this perspective, plastic is key to reducing the significant environmental impact of food waste in terms of climate, land, water and biodiversity, all of which are impacted by the multiple processes involved in growing and distributing food,” he said.

Through a new programme called Inspire, researchers will aim to make the production of plastic more environmentally friendly by utilising food waste and biomass to generate a range of materials capable of replacing petroleum-based polymers for packaging applications.

“The most commonly used biodegradable polymer is polylactic acid which is most frequently synthesised from corn. However, this puts added pressure on already strained global food production.

“We’re hoping to use special compostable polymers to make plastic production more sustainable. In the food packaging space, where plastic contamination is common, this is particularly salient,” Major said.

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Órla Ryan

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