A South Korean scientist is helping to curb climate change by developing biodegradable bags made of materials such as crab shells.
Hwang Sung-Yeon, a researcher at the Korea Research Institute of Chemical Technology, said that the new bags are also stronger, more durable and decompose faster than existing plastic ones.
Conventional plastic products are made from coal and petroleum, which happen to be types of fossil fuels — materials that contribute to climate change and take centuries to decompose.
“Climate change requires us to go fossil fuel-free,” Hwang told the Korea Times. “Plastic is all about fossil fuel and the solution is bioplastic. I am happy to make a contribution.”
The first synthetic plastic was created by American inventor John Wesley Hyatt in 1868. Inspired by an ad that offered $10,000 for anyone who could provide a substitute for ivory in billiard balls, he combined nitrocellulose, camphor and alcohol to make a pliable material, which would later be known as celluloid.
Since then, plastic has transformed human lives. By the end of World War II, companies started commercializing plastic products, a trend that eventually contributed to a global waste crisis of over 6.9 billion tons.
Hwang, whose bags take six months to decompose, acknowledged the importance of plastic in its heyday.
“It was invented to improve lives of people and without them, life would be very tough,” the 45-year-old told the Korea Times. “I would say plastic was a new civilization. If we have to live without plastic now, it would be like going back to times before the Joseon Dynasty.”
Bioplastic typically combines substances from corn, wood, rice straws and sugarcane with petroleum. While biodegradable, bags made from such materials can easily tear apart.
To solve the issue, Hwang and his team added stiffeners from crab shells and wood pulp to increase tensile strength from 65 to 70 megapascals, surpassing the average tensile strength of 40 megapascals of more common plastic materials. Their bags are now as strong as nylons used in parachutes and safety belts, according to the Korea Bizwire.
Hwang and his team also invented plastic using corn with a strong heat-resistance property. This material is especially useful in making products such as baby milk bottles.
“If the government put strict regulations on plastic bags, cups, and straws, it would open a new market for more bioplastic products,” Hwang told the Korea Times. “When there will be more bioplastic products made by companies, more people will buy them.”
Other than researching bioplastic for 15 years and counting, Hwang sorts out plastic waste accordingly at home — and teaches his two daughters to do the same.
“I didn’t have special motivation when I started my career. Environmental issues were big when I was in school and I was thinking about what I could do to make a contribution,” he said.
“Because I know what plastics are made of, I can sort out plastic waste better than anyone.”
Featured Images via Korea Research Institute of Chemical Technology