move aside

Your takeout is getting a green upgrade

Say goodbye to plastic waste.

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Slow decaying, single-use plastic waste is a big pollution problem (an 300 million ton-sized pollution problem) that scientists are desperate to solve.

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Traditional synthetic plastic, like you might find in your to-go coffee cup, is made using petroleum, a fossil fuel. These plastics create emissions in their manufacturing, and when they decay.

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Not to mention, they’re physically clogging oceans and harming marine life.

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Plant-based alternatives have started to hit the market, but matching the price, convenience, and usability of synthetic plastic is a tall order. And some, made from “secondary” materials like newspapers, may hold on to non-food safe chemicals.

Hongli Zhu

A team of material engineers from Northeastern University has a potential solution to the problem using another form of waste: sugarcane pulp. Their findings were published Thursday in the journal Matter.

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Brazil, the world’s largest processor of sugarcane, produces annually up to 171 million tons of a fibrous byproduct from sugarcane called bagasse. By itself, this material is not great for manufacturing plates or cups because of its brittle fibers.

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But when combined with bamboo, researchers say that this excess sugarcane pulp can really shine. Because bamboo fibers are long and skinny, they make the perfect complement for a robust molding material.

How the bagasse fibers and bamboo fibers interact, up close.

To see how well a container made from this sugarcane-bamboo hybrid would hold up against a lunch of extra greasy fried chicken or a piping hot cup of coffee, they compared their material with another common bioplastic across heat, oil, and liquid trials.

Across the board, the team’s new material outshone the competition.

This figure from the paper shows how the team's material (right) fares against another molded pulp material.
This image demonstrate's the cup's ability to withstand water damage — even after sitting in liquid for 8 hours.

To see how it would perform after lunch, the team also stuck cups constructed using their material under the ground for 60-days to see how they'd decay. In 60-days, the cups had nearly completely lost their shape and had begun to grow yellow fungi.

This image shows the cup's progression over 60 days.

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For comparison, synthetic plastic can take up to 450 years to biodegrade.

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With lower emissions, lower cost, and better scalability than other bioplastic alternatives, the researchers write that they’re optimistic that their material could finally topple plastic from its pedestal.

“This scalable molded pulp tableware is a desirable substitute for traditional nonbiodegradable plastics, especially for food packaging," the authors write.

Read more about the science of bioplastics here.