Majority of plastics today are made from oil, which is a finite and therefore unsustainable resource. As such, extensive research has been conducted to date in the various sectors using plastic to find an alternative source.
There have been breakthroughs to create degradable polyesters, such as polyactic acid (PLA), which are made from crops such as corn or sugar cane. However, PLA is generally mixed with a rubbery polymer called caprolactone so to as to make the material more flexible. Caprolactone is made from crude oil; the resulting plastic therefore is not totally renewable.
Pondering on this, the researchers from the Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies (CSCT) at the University of Bath used pinene as the raw material to make a new type of plastic, in place of caprolactone. Other than giving pine trees their distinctive smell, pinene is also a waste product from the paper industry—this eliminates the need to separately source for the chemical since it is readily available wherever there are paper mills.
“We’re not talking about recycling old Christmas trees into plastics, but rather using a waste product from industry that would otherwise be thrown away, and turning it into something useful. So if we can make a plastic from sustainable sources, it could make a big difference to the environment,” commented Helena Quilter, PhD student at CSCT.
The research is part of a wider project that looks at using bio-based chemicals like pinene as a sustainable starting material for making a range of useful products, in place of petrochemicals, explained professor Matthew Davidson, director of CSCT and Whorrod professor of sustainable chemical technologies.
The research is still in the early stages—only a few grams have been made so far—but the researchers aim to scale up the process to produce larger quantities in the near future.