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Plastics WERE the Future, But Not Anymore

(AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)

Hundreds of cities and other entities have banned single use plastic bags. It’s a step forward for the environment, and the whole, ban plastic bags movement is inspiring people to find new ways to transport their stuff.

But this point, there’s no suitable replacement for them.  Scientists at Virginia Tech are working on one. 

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, Americans alone, use 100 billion plastic bags every year, but each time, for just 12 minutes on average. Most are not biodegradable and some that are release toxins as they decompose. For decades, scientists have been trying to find the right kind of bio-components, basically plants and starches, to make a better bag.  

Young Kim is professor of Sustainable Biomaterials at Virginia Tech. He says existing methods to extract those components use extremely toxic chemicals. “At Virginia Tech we developed a new technology to extract bio-components using a physical method.  We call it ‘melt compounding technology."

And it does pretty much what it sounds like. It involves an extruder and glycerin to extract cellulose and lignin from plants like soybeans to sage grass, and the new superstar, hemp. It’s a slow process that takes about three months.  Kim says it will be several years before we’ll have a chance to use a bio-plastic bag made this way.

In the meantime, while we wait to see how it goes, Kim believes it’s going to take cooperation from all of us to stem the tide of plastics pollution. “I believe, as a scientist, that we will need multiple collaborations among customers, government, academia, and industry to improve sustainability at this moment, because technology, at this moment, is not enough to solve the existing plastic problem.”

Virginia Tech has filed a patent on the new bio-plastic making process. The project is being supported with a grant from US Department of Agriculture.

***Editor's Note: Radio IQ is a service of Virginia Tech.

Robbie Harris is based in Blacksburg, covering the New River Valley and southwestern Virginia.
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