US scientists develop biodegradable plastic for disposable food containers

20 January 2013 (Last Updated January 20th, 2013 18:30)

Scientists at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) have collaborated with Washington State University professor Jinwen Zhang and his colleagues to come out with a sustainable solution for disposable food containers.

Scientists at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) have collaborated with Washington State University professor Jinwen Zhang and his colleagues to come out with a sustainable solution for disposable food containers.

Dubbed 'thermoplastic' due to the fact it becomes soft upon heating, the biodegradable plastic was developed based on sugar beet pulp and a biodegradable polymer called polylactic acid, or PLA, using a twin screw extruder.

During the manufacturing process, biodegradable sugar beet pulp was incorporated with a biodegradable polymer by the scientists of Agricultural Research Service (ARS), USDA's main intramural scientific research agency.

This led to the creation of thermoplastic composites, which have mechanical properties similar to polystyrene and polypropylene to make white, spongy disposable food packages.

"The biodegradable plastic was developed based on sugar beet pulp and a biodegradable polymer called polylactic acid."

Researchers found that the incorporation of up to 50% sugar beet pulp with PLA is enough to produce the sustainable output, which they claim would be cost-effective for manufacturers.

ARS scientists LinShu Liu and Arland Hotchkiss have researched and found several uses of sugar beet pulp, a leftover residue from sugar extraction being generated in high quantities by processors every year.

PLA is a commercially available polymer derived from renewable feedstocks, such as sugars in corn, sugar beet, sugarcane and switchgrass, among various others.