A groundbreaking new material made from barley starch blended with fiber from sugarbeet waste—a robust substance that composts if it ends up in nature—has been developed at the University of Copenhagen. In the long term, the researchers hope that their invention can help curb plastic pollution while reducing the climate footprint of plastic production.

Enormous islands of plastic float in our oceans, and microscopic particles infiltrate our bodies. The durability, malleability, and low cost of plastics have made them ubiquitous, from packaging to clothing to aircraft parts. However, plastics have significant downsides: they contaminate nature, are difficult to recycle, and their production emits more CO2 than all air traffic combined.

Now, researchers at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences have created a new material from modified starch that can completely decompose in nature within only two months. Made using natural plant materials from crops, this innovative material could be used for food packaging, among other applications.

“We have an enormous problem with our plastic waste that recycling seems incapable of solving. Therefore, we’ve developed a new type of bioplastic that is stronger and can better withstand water than current bioplastics. At the same time, our material is 100% biodegradable and can be converted into compost by microorganisms if it ends up somewhere other than a bin,” says Professor Andreas Blennow of the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences.

Globally, only about 9% of plastic is recycled, with the rest being either incinerated, ending up in nature, or dumped into enormous plastic landfills.

Bioplastics already exist, but the name is misleading, says Blennow. While today’s bioplastics are made of bio-derived materials, only a limited part of them is actually degradable, and only under specific conditions in industrial composting plants.

“I don’t find the name suitable because the most common types of bioplastics don’t break down that easily if tossed into nature. The process can take many years, and some of it continues to pollute as microplastic. Specialized facilities are needed to break down bioplastics. And even then, a very limited part of them can be recycled, with the rest ending up as waste,” says Blennow.

By Impact Lab