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UCC/ERI at the helm as we tackle plastic issues

5 Sep
Arno Fricke, a PhD student in the School of Microbiology and Environmental Research Institute (ERI), UCC, discusses the Newtrients project at UCC, which is advancing the technology of using bacteria to produce bioplastic from dairy processing wastewater. Picture: Clare Keogh

The rise of plastic waste has become a major environmental issue throughout the globe. Cork's Evening Echo's Darragh Bermingham speaks to researchers in UCC/ERI who are coming up with cutting-edge solutions to tackle the issue.

BIOPLASTIC research and application has the potential to play a major role in the war on plastic which is raging across the world.

The UN estimates that eight million tonnes of plastic waste ends up in the ocean annually and millions of animals die because of the plastic waste in our oceans.

According to the British Antarctic Survey, plastic bags are now commonly found floating as far north of the Arctic Circle near Spitsbergen, and as far south as the Falkland Islands.

Plastic pollution and waste is affecting things here on the surface, beaches littered with waste, but it is also having a major impact on marine life, even in some of the most remote parts of the ocean.

Bioplastics, a type of biodegradable plastic derived from biological substances rather than petrol and oil, can lead the war against such waste. Cutting-edge research in the field is taking place right here in Cork, at UCC.

The ‘Newtrients’ project is advancing the technology of using bacteria to produce bioplastic from wastewater produced during dairy processing.

This technology could help to use waste materials instead of fossil fuels to produce plastic, and provide a biodegradable bioplastic, which can be composted to fertilise the next generation of the material.

Arno Fricke, a PhD student in the School of Microbiology and Environmental Research Institute (ERI), UCC, discussed the project with the Echo.

“This can have real-world implications, also environmental implications which is a big factor,” he said. “We have to look at creating solutions to current problems.”

One problem, Arno explained is the amount of plastic being produced for single-use purposes. 60% of plastic is going to single-use packaging.

“Plastic itself is a perfect product,” said Arno. “It can be moulded and shaped to whatever we want, it can be super soft, super hard, clear or non-transparent.

“The problem arises when we only use it once,” he added.

“This is material that is meant to last for decades yet we throw it out after two days. It’s not a problem if people buy a plastic lunchbox or bottle and reuse it,” explained Arno.

“If we all did this, we wouldn’t have the worldwide issues we face today in terms of plastic waste.”

Another issue is the amount of wastewater Ireland’s dairy sector produces, which is often difficult to clean and dispose of.

“Ireland is producing a lot of dairy products but there is also a lot of waste being created in the process,” he said.

“For example, with yoghurt or whey powder, different amounts of wastewater is produced but it could be up to 10 litres of wastewater for every litre of product.

“Ireland is producing 7.2 billion litres of dairy product a year so we can imagine how much wastewater is also being produced,” he added.

There are various regulations dictating how to clean this wastewater, explained Arno.

“You can’t just dump it into the nearest river or Ireland would end up smelling like rotten milk,” he said.

“There are still parts of the milk products within the wastewater, whey protein or fats.

“These need to be cleaned out,” he added.

The bacteria used to create the bioplastic need food, and UCC scientists are using the microscopic nutrients found in the wastewater produced during dairy production.

“They are basically the building blocks of the bioplastic,” said Arno.

The process is carried it in two phases, he explained.

First, the wastewater is broken down into ‘fatty acids’ to allow the bacteria to consume them.

This is then kept in the storage cells of the bacteria who adapt better to the starving phase implemented after the feeding period.

It is then extracted and can be used to create the bioplastic.

“We’re hoping to be able to mould it into whatever we want,” said Arno.

There are already bioplastics produced in this kind of way, he added.

“The thing about this project is we’re trying to reduce costs.

“Bioplastics aren’t really produced on a large scale because it’s very tough to get people to buy it as it’s expensive,” he said.

“Petrol based plastic, which has been produced for over 100 years, has been optimised so it is at its cheapest.

“The oil price is low at the moment, keeping that price low so it’s difficult for bioplastic, which is more expensive to produce, to compete with it,” he explained.

Fresh applications and new ideas are the aim of the game, according to Arno.

“We’re always looking at new applications, ideas that can have knock-on effects in terms of environmental and other impacts,” he said.

“We need to find applications where bioplastic offers something ordinary plastic doesn’t. This is where the agricultural sector, comes into play.

“There are very interesting applications for this type of bioplastic,” said Arno.

“One of the biggest is mulch films, which are used to cover crops in agriculture to keep it warm and enhance growth.

“In the past, plastic sheets were used and they can be very hard to remove from a field fully so farmers sometimes just plough them into the earth,” he added.

“This leads to an extremely high concentration of plastic in the soil.

“There are fields across the world that have a plastic content of up to 80% and nothing can grow there anymore.

“The idea is, with the bioplastic, that mulch films made from this and can be ploughed into the soil.

“They can then break down in the soil and actually fertilise it so instead of having a negative impact or none at all, this will actually have a positive effect,” explained Arno.

“You can also trap fertilisers in small pellets of bioplastic which then break down over time, fertilising the soil.

“This is a very interesting capability and one that can have ongoing implications.” Research in the field of bioplastics is ramping up at the moment, according to Arno, who said he hopes it will keep improving and producing.

“What we’re seeing at the moment, there is a lot more investment going in, production is ramping up.

“However, we can’t keep up with the normal plastic which is really cheap,” he admitted.

“We need to get it into a niche where it offers more than non-degradable plastic.” There are also medical applications for these types of plastic, which many of us may have encountered at some stage in the form of dissolvable stitches.

“We get stitches if we are cut which dissolve so you don’t need to remove them which can be very painful,” he said.

“They can also trap drugs in the thread so that while it is dissolving, it is applying this medication where it is needed.

“This is a great application, one that can’t be carried out by normal plastic,” he added.

“This is why bioplastics like this are crucial, they have purposes not many other plastics can carry out.

“When it has these types of benefits, along with the mulch films, people will pay for it because they see the impact.” While Arno said it could be a while yet, he does see these types of bioplastic becoming more mainstream and competing with the more conventional, cheaper models produced from fossil fuels.

He did warn, however, that it may take a change in attitude.

“As long as oil is cheap, and there is no penalty for plastic use, then I can’t see bioplastic being widely used just yet,” said Arno.

Arno said he would like to see the EU and Irish government take part in awareness campaigns, encouraging the use of bioplastic and informing people what it actually is.

Bioplastic encompasses a wide range of plastics, he explained.

“What we focus on is where did it come from and where is it going.

“Is it coming from a fossil fuel or a renewable source and is it biodegradable or is it not.

“There is confusion around this because plastics can be formed from fossil fuels but can be artificially biodegradable,” added Arno.

“It can also be derived from renewable sources and isn’t degradable.

“It wouldn’t have the effect most people think.

“Bioplastic is thought of as green and biodegradable and a lot of it is but some aren’t and people need to be careful.

“They see it’s biodegradable and get careless with how they throw it out or they use more of it.

“This is counterintuitive because it’s not sustainable,” he added.

When it comes to fighting plastic waste, bioplastics can play a major role, according to Arno.

“Plastic is a problem we all have to tackle together, as a world, not just as a nation,” he said.

“If the EU is clean of plastics, but another continent is churning out plastic, it’s still a problem for us all.

“It would be great to see Ireland, as well as the EU, really get behind bioplastic because this could be the solution to a lot of the litter problems if we support it,” he added.

Bioplastic was one of the first types of plastic ever produced and recent research and investment is cause for optimism, according to Arno.

“In the 1800s or so, it was the first one that was widely available.

“Then they found fossil fuels plastic was cheaper and production of bioplastic dropped,” he explained.

“Production of plastic from fossil fuels kept increasing and increasing until the 70’s when we had the big oil crisis.

“All of a sudden, people realised we needed bioplastic and production began to increase again.

“Then the oil crisis ended and plastic production spiked again.” This may be the first time in recent history that the bioplastic industry has experienced a surge that was not the result of a hit to the oil industry.

“It’s the first time it’s being done, not because of an oil crisis, but because of an awareness that we need to do it,” said Arno.

“This time there is an industry growing that is not just there for the short term, but to really change things in the long term.” That, he said, gives us hope.

Environmental Research Institute

University College Cork, Lee Road, Cork

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