Penicillin, microwaves, Velcro, matches, and X-rays are among the many transformative breakthroughs that emerged through chance discoveries. Now, scientists say that you can add “vegan spider silk” to this list. The discovery might help resolve the global problem of single-use plastic pollution.
When analyzing protein formation and integrations, the University of Cambridge scientists were interested in the strength possessed by spider silk despite its weak molecular bonds.
As they strived to replicate that bond formation using soy protein isolate, they developed a product that seems similar to plastic but can be made from plant proteins. Not only is this material durable and water-resistant, it is wholly compostable and no spiders were needed in its creation.
Professor Tuomas Knowles from the Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry at Cambridge said:
“It was a surprise to find our research could also address a big problem in sustainability: that of plastic pollution. This is the culmination of something we’ve been working on for over 10 years, which is understanding how nature generates materials from proteins. We didn’t set out to solve a sustainability challenge — we were motivated by curiosity as to how to create strong materials from weak interactions.”
This study has mainly been done to determine how the behavior of proteins relates to human health and diseases, such as Alzheimer’s.
In the process, they discovered a material that offers a “performance equivalent to high-performance engineering plastics such as low-density polyethylene.”
In partnership with Xampla, a spinout company from the University of Cambridge, the researchers said that the material will be commercialized in the coming months. By the end of 2023, it is expected that multiple vegan spider silk single-use capsules and sachets will be introduced. These flagship products might be used in laundry tablets and dishwashers.
Interestingly, this material has many other possible applications, which include working as a replacement for some of the current plastic packaging available in the current market.
Marc Rodriguez Garcia of Xam commented:
“It’s exciting to be part of this journey. There is a huge, huge issue of plastic pollution in the world, and we are in the fortunate position to be able to do something about it.”
Single-use plastics present a major environmental problem since they do not break down naturally, ultimately becoming microplastics whenever they erode and then pollute global water sources. Later, they are ingested by marine animals that are consumed by humans. Unfortunately, these microplastics can release toxic chemicals into the body.
Notably, they also present a major issue in terms of using dirty fuel in the refinery and manufacturing of the material and then toxic emissions are released when these plastics are burned after disposal.
Based on a statement by the Plastic Pollution Coalition, each ton of plastic burned creates a ton of planet-heating pollution.
Vegan spider silk, thus, might prove to be a major discovery in mitigating the harmful carbon pollution that is produced in the life cycle of plastics, providing a significant benefit to the planet in the fight to ensure that global temperatures stop rising.
What Is Single-Use Plastic?
Single-use plastic, also called disposable plastic, is damaging to the environment. Although some of these plastic items are marked as recyclable, if they are designed to be thrown away then they are single-use since 90% of plastic is never recycled once it gets discarded. Disposable plastic, or single-use plastic, is any plastic item that is used only once, and then thrown away.
Large corporations have convinced users for many years that single-use plastic is important in the fast-paced, consumer-driven culture that they force us into. These corporations give us false disposable plastic solutions such as recycling as an antidote to the huge amounts of disposable plastic waste when a majority of the single-use plastic is just burned and ultimately contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.
What We Can Do About It
The global plastic disaster sounds quite scary, but we can do something to change our fate. Here are some ideas:
- Avoid non-recycled plastics.
- Use cloth and other reusable shopping bags instead of plastic bags.
- Carry take-out containers and support establishments that use recyclable takeout options.
- Support the efforts meant to minimize dependence on single-use plastics. Examples are plastic bans and imposed levies on plastic shopping bags.
- Buy things in bulk to minimize plastic packaging.
- Avoid establishments that do not offer non-plastic options.
- Be informed to know what is and what is not recyclable.
Everyone can participate to help prevent more damage to the environment and waterways from plastics. ‘Zero waste’ and ‘zero plastic waste’ movements are coming up worldwide to help tackle this problem. If everyone plays their role, we can help stop the plastic problem from getting worse.
Thus, vegan spider silk seems to have come at a great time to restore the world and salvage it from the shackles of single-use plastics.