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Engineering Biodegradable Plastics out of Biomass-Crops and Timber Harvest

By Lawayne Childrey | Published 22 Feb 2011 12:42pm | comments
Officials at the Golden Triangle Landfill near Starkville says they bury at least 140 thousand tons of garbage a year.

From plastic bottles to plastic bags landfills across the country are being filled to capacity with the petroleum based products that could take millions of years to disintegrate. In part four of our engineering week series MPB's Lawayne Childrey reports how researchers at Mississippi State University are developing a biodegradable plastic made from harvested plant residue.

Plastics are an integral part of American life. We use it for everything from bottling beverages to building furniture to even playing a game of football.

“Helmets made of plastics, mouth guards made of plastics, uniform is made of plastic. But really every day the products that we use all have some aspect of plastic in it.”

That's Dr. Keisha Walters' a research Director at Mississippi State University. She says while plastics are convenient, most are made from petroleum based products that never decompose and can sit in landfills forever. That's why she and her team of researchers are studying ways to make plastics that will break down by using common resources like harvested forest and crop residue.

“We want to make materials that will breakdown in landfills and they’re gonna degrade either due to light, moisture etc. So these are made from plant based materials and when they degrade they go back into those plant based material. And so when you think about the health impacts of having contact with plastics your entire life you’re talking about improving the long term health of Mississippians.”

Plant based plastics also known as bio plastics have been around for years. They are derived from farm vegetables that break down over time. This adds nutrients to the soil and creates rich fertile compost in landfills across the nation.

“We take all the municipal solid waste from the cities and the counties. Everything you throw out in the garbage at home, comes out here.”

Standing high atop the Golden Triangle Landfill near Starkville, Executive Director Jimmy Sloan says his company buries at least 140 thousand tons of garbage a year .

“That’s dead hogs from a hog farm operation. We get dead cows, just about anything you can think of that’s nonhazardous pretty much comes to this type of landfill for disposal.”

While all of those items will decompose, Sloan says the majority of what he sees in his landfill will not.

“Pretty much everything that you can see got plastic in it. It won’t decompose. And If Mississippi State can develop a way to make plastics that will decompose then think just how much more waste volume will be lost when it decomposes.”

The affects of non degradable plastics are so drastic on landfills that Sloan says he is already looking ahead.

“And if you mind a landfill in the future you’re gonna have to do something with them. If you mind a landfill and you take the metal out you can recycle the metal. I guess theoretically you could recycle the plastics but there’s really nothing you can do with them, I guess that’s why there’s no market for ‘em.”

But with new research to make plastics that are bio degradable Andy Prosser with the Mississippi Department of Agriculture says it could also create an excellent opportunity for MS. farmers. He says there could be a huge market for farmers to sell their timber and crop harvest residue which would be the base for the new bio degradable plastics.

“Right now this product they’re using if its wood waste in the forest after a timber harvest or if it’s in a row crop situation with stalks or other things. Its left in the fields its left in the forest and anything that can be extra used to put into the revenue stream for a farmer we see as a benefit. Because right now they’re not getting any profit from any of this stuff and when it does go into a value added marketing stream that’s a benefit for everybody.”

While the reality of transforming wasted plant material into bio degradable plastics is still a few years away, MSU Research Director Keisha Walters' says the end result will be a win win for all.

“When we look at our impact on the environment and on what’s going to be our children’s environment and our grand children’s environment. I think all of us want to have some control over that impact. And this is going to allow both manufactures and consumers to have choices and I think a lot of people will choose to use bio plastics instead.”

Scientist at MSU could have their biodegradable plastic compound ready for market in just a few years. But until then experts say landfills will continue to swell with thousands of tons of plastic every day. That means it will never disintegrate, never dissolve, never go away. Lawayne Childrey MPB News.

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Officials at the Golden Triangle Landfill near Starkville says they bury at least 140 thousand tons of garbage a year.


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