Researchers in China have developed a new type of glass they claim is both biodegradable and biorecyclable, meaning it can break down and be reused in nature—the latest eco-friendly alternative to glass or plastic to emerge, though researchers admit the development of the glass for commercial use remains a ways away.
Researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Process Engineering formed the glass material using naturally occurring protein molecules called amino acids and short chains of amino acids called peptides, according to a paper published Friday in the journal Science Advances.
Researchers say those protein molecules can degrade and be reused in nature by small organisms, as opposed to standard commercial glass, which is typically made of a combination of sand, limestone and other chemicals, including sodium carbonate and methyl methacrylate, and cannot break down naturally.
Like traditional glass, the eco-friendly version is heated above its melting point to form a “supercooled liquid” before it’s cooled in a process called quenching, to prevent it from crystallizing.
When super-heated, the amino acids and peptides are chemically modified in order to prevent them from prematurely decomposing in the heating process.
After cooling the glass, researchers said it showed a “unique combination of functional properties and eco-friendly features,” including flexibility and transparency, meaning they could potentially be used in eyeglasses and windows.
While researchers believe a transition to biodegradable glass could have a positive environmental effect and be developed with a “minimal environmental footprint,” they admit the production of eco-friendly gas will be “very challenging.” That’s because the high temperatures used in manufacturing can cause it to easily decompose. Xuehai Yan, a professor at the Institute of Process Engineering who worked on the study, acknowledged the development of the glass remains in the “laboratory stage” and is “far from large-scale commercialization.”
Scientists and lawmakers have long warned that commercial plastics, glass and other materials do not decompose and often end up in the ocean, lakes, rivers and other natural areas, or are buried in landfills, where they cannot degrade into soil. Scientists say conventional glass is completely recyclable, and can be melted into new glass products, or used in roadway projects. However, the EPA found in 2018 roughly 31% of glass materials are recycled in the U.S., with nearly twice as much thrown into landfills. Recyclable plastics, meanwhile, are often contaminated with non-recyclable materials that are thrown away, meaning they are often not recycled altogether. A 2019 study in Science found only 10% of plastic in the U.S. is recycled, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and a Greenpeace USA study published last October found the amount might be even lower, around 5%.
Scientists have also proposed compostable alternatives to plastics, including products made of corn, sugar and other natural materials—though studies have found those materials do not completely decompose or take considerably longer to decompose than other compostable materials, like vegetables or paper. One study published last November in Frontiers in Sustainability found roughly 60% of plastics labeled as compostable do not break down after six months.
Current Climate: Scientists Discover A Cheap Way To Recycle Plastic (Forbes)
‘It’s greenwash’: most home compostable plastics don’t work, says study (The Guardian)
Evaluating scenarios toward zero plastic pollution (Science)