Grasstic is made from the stalks of grass crops such as wheat or corn and can be used for dry goods packaging.
University of B.C. researchers have stepped up to find sustainable solutions to replace plastics, which don’t break down in the environment and can harm wildlife. Soluble Film Pva
One of those innovators is PhD student Amanda Johnson.
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Johnson, who works in the department of wood science at UBC’s faculty of forestry, has created a bioplastic from agricultural crops that belong to the grass family such as wheat, corn and oats . She only uses the stalk from these grass crops so she’s not taking away a food source, which is important as food scarcity linked to climate change becomes more of a threat.
She said they have done mechanical testing on her plastic alternative — called Grasstic — and found it is twice as strong as a plastic bag. The bioplastic is transparent, which makes it great for use in dry goods packaging such as the windows in bread bags or on pasta boxes or films over ice cream.
“Cereal grasses like wheat have long stalks which are either baled off during harvest or left in the fields. That’s a lot of material that could be up-cycled into bioplastic,” she said in an interview Thursday ahead of a Climate Change Stories event at UBC that she spoke at in the evening.
“So, I decided to use a biopolymer in this waste to make bioplastic and it worked. I t’s really exciting .”
Grasstic is made from a biopolymer called x ylan, which is abundant in grasses and biodegrades .
Johnson has been working on this project as part of her PhD for four years, and is driven by a passion to find sustainable materials to replace fossil fuel-based plastics that don’t break down in the environment.
Often biodegradable bags that can be purchased at stores, while compostable, are made from corn starch, which is a food source.
“I nstead of choosing corn as a starting material for the bioplastic, I’ve chosen agricultural waste — just the stalks of the wheat, corn or oat plant — all of these cereal grasses are a great source of this bio polymer.”
As well, Johnson said she has tested it for biodegradation in both soil and ocean water, so even if it ended up in the environment it breaks down and does not pose a risk to wildlife.
“I’ve eaten it, you can eat it. It’s completely safe. And the process that I use to make it is completely green. I use a water-based process to get the polymer out of the plant.”
Now she is looking to partner with bio-refineries and farmers to find a large commercial source of the biopolymer she needs to make the plastic alternative.
“My heart breaks every time I speak to someone from a paper mill about sourcing the biopolymer and they say, ‘ O h that part we just burn.’ I could make Grasstic out of that. ”
Once she has that, she can scale up production. She said Canadian food manufacturers, such as Loblaws, are open to considering biodegradable materials that can replace single-use plastics in bakery applications or to replace materials that are difficult to source within North America, such as the clear windows on pasta and other dry good boxes.
There are several other initiatives underway at UBC looking to rid the world of plastic.
One is led by UBC researcher Dr. Feng Jiang, who has developed a cellulose film from wood pulp. Meanwhile, two new UBC startups are battling plastic pollution. Bioform Technologies has created a compostable bioplastic from kelp and wood fibre, while A2O Advanced Materials has developed a new chemical compound that can prolong the life of industrial materials.
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