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This PHA resin is bio-based and fully biodegradable. The formula will be used to develop a fully biodegradable plastic straw. (Photo by UGA/Dorothy Kozlowski)
This PHA resin is bio-based and fully biodegradable. The formula will be used to develop a fully biodegradable plastic straw. (Photo by UGA/Dorothy Kozlowski)

A research team that includes partners from the University of Georgia (UGA) New Materials Institute and the RWDC Environmental Stewardship Foundation will develop a fully biodegradable plastic straw thanks to the US$719,000 award from Singapore’s Temasek Foundation Ecosperity.

The team synthesized a food contact polymer that will be used to develop into a commercially viable straw, which RWDC would then bring to market.

RWDC and the New Materials Institute will attempt to create prototypes to prove the straws can be manufactured consistently, produced at a scale to meet global demand and are fully biodegradable in soil, fresh water and marine water. Testing largely will be conducted in a New Materials Institute laboratory built with RWDC grant funding.

Currently, there are few non-plastic straw alternatives available to consumers. Many plastics branded as “biodegradable” are made from plant-based material called polylactic acid, or PLA. PLA-based plastics are compostable in limited environments, but they do not fully degrade outside of these settings.

On the other hand, less than 10% of petroleum-based plastics are recycled. The 90% that aren’t recycled will ultimately fragment over time, and as micronized plastic, can end up in soil, rivers and oceans—forever, according to Jason Locklin, director of the New Materials Institute and a professor in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences department of chemistry, and the College of Engineering, who worked on the project.

Effective environmentally friendly PHA-straws

The team’s biodegradable straws are based on a proprietary, bio-based resin in the class of polymers called polyhydroxyalkanoates, or PHAs.

For the PHA-straw to be a viable product in the marketplace, it will have to perform as well as the plastic straws currently in use. It must also be cost-effective over its entire life cycle, including disposal, said Branson Ritchie, director of technology development and implementation for the New Materials Institute, and a distinguished research professor at UGA.

“The PHA-straw is an initial step toward our shared goal, with RWDC, of replacing single-use, petroleum-based plastics with plastics made from our biodegradable resins,” Ritchie said. “We can tweak our formulas and expand our technology on a product-by-product basis. This keeps a manufacturer’s costs down because they don’t have to reinvent their processes, and this facilitates their ability to quickly produce environmentally-friendly plastic products.”

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