A Sustainable Shift with Microbial Manufacturing

breaking down plastic straws into microplastic

Photo by FlyD on Unsplash

by | Apr 19, 2024

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The plastics industry is undergoing seismic changes with a heightened emphasis on sustainability. Traditional plastics, primarily produced from crude oil, are known for their durability and resistance to degradation, contributing to environmental pollution. Rising to the challenge, researchers at Kobe University and Kaneka Corporation have significantly advanced the development of environmentally friendly plastics. Their breakthrough involves using microbial factories to produce green plastics, marking a potential shift toward more sustainable production practices in the industry.

Bridging Gaps with Bioplastics

Polylactic acid (PLA), a renewable alternative to conventional plastics, has been lauded for its potential but criticized for its brittleness and poor degradation properties. Addressing these shortcomings, the Kobe University team, led by Taguchi Seiichi, has innovated a blend of PLA with a novel bioplastic, LAHB, produced through engineered bacteria. This blend enhances the material’s durability and processability and achieves high biodegradability, even in challenging environments like seawater.

The key to this innovation lies in manipulating bacteria to produce LAHB chains of “ultra-high molecular weight,” a feat that significantly surpasses the capabilities of conventional production methods. The result is a highly transparent plastic that combines the best of both worlds: traditional plastics’ formability and versatility with bioplastics’ environmental friendliness.

The Industrial Implications

The implications of this development for the plastics industry are manifold. For manufacturers, the ability to produce a more durable, processable, and environmentally friendly product opens up new markets, particularly in sectors where the demand for sustainable materials is growing. The technology also offers the potential for reducing reliance on non-renewable resources like crude oil, instead utilizing glucose or, prospectively, CO2 as feedstocks.

While the benefits are clear, adopting microbial manufacturing processes also presents challenges. The initial investment in biomanufacturing technology and the shift from established petrochemical processes could be significant barriers for some companies. The long-term rewards of such a transition, both environmental and economic, could well outweigh the initial costs.

The development aligns with global sustainability goals, offering businesses a chance to lead in the transition to a greener economy. The potential to directly synthesize plastics from greenhouse gases further amplifies the environmental benefits, presenting an innovative carbon capture and utilization approach.

Beyond the immediate application in plastics, this microbial factory concept could pave the way for broader biomanufacturing solutions, effectively linking microbial production with material development.


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