For years, we have been using plastic for basically everything ranging from food to clothes to furniture. In recent years, our knowledge of the environment has grown and with that; the recognition that plastic is bad for our planet. So bad that continuing to use plastic may lead to our undoing. Luckily there are many alternatives to plastic. One of which is wheat straw plastic. What is it, and is it environmentally friendly? We’ll tell you in this article.
What is wheat straw plastic?
Wheat is a type of grain that’s most often used to make bread, flour or wheat-gluten. Wheat straw is what’s leftover once the wheat is harvested and using it in plastic production is an ideal zero-waste option.
The plastic is created by breaking down the cellulose the wheat straw contains. This process creates the opportunity to make different kinds of polymers. Polymers are large bonds formed by loose monomers that are strong and are used as building blocks to create a substance. Natural polymers are also found in our bodies, like our nails and hair.
Plastic is made from artificial polymers, but polymers created from wheat straw are fully natural.
How is it made?
Once the wheat has been harvested, the by-product: the straws, contain lignin. Lignin is part of the plant that makes sure that it can keep standing. It’s like the thick trunk of a tree but made for a smaller plant. In combination with sugar, lignin can be turned into a bioplastic. However, the lignin needs to be broken down first in order to make plastic out of it. The University of Warwick in the UK has found that a bacterium called the Rhodococcus jostii (which is found in soil) helps to break down lignin. This bacterium is able to produce acid, which breaks down lignin (and other materials) easily without the intervention of man-made products. This, in itself, is better for the environment. When the lignin has been broken down and combined with sugar, it is a plastic-like substance that is moulded into forms like cups and plates.
Another way to create products using the wheat straw is by making it into a paper-like substance. The straw is turned into a pulp with the help of certain chemicals. The pulp is then pressed into a form like a plate. It’s strong and non-allergenic and doesn’t even contain gluten! This method is not limited to wheat straw; it is also possible to do this with other agricultural waste products like leaves, grass and even wood.
The perks of wheat straw plastics
All-natural plastics come with a plethora of perks for ourselves, but also the environment.
First of all, this plastic is entirely biodegradable. In your home compost, it takes 3 to 6 months to fully compost, but using a city program, that time period is lowered to 1 or 2 months. It’s renewable and sustainable. Since these plastic products are completely natural, they can be decomposed and used as fertilizer. They can also be melted back into pulp to create different products again and again.
It requires less energy to produce wheat straw plastic. The production of regular plastic uses a lot of energy and releases a lot of CO2 gases. Wheat straws require less energy because they are natural and do not need as much processing to become pulp. Added to this, they require fewer toxins, such as oil, because their natural fibres make the material sturdy enough already.
It also helps save our forests because wheat straws can also be used to create paper. This material can replace paper typically used for disposable cups, plates, etc. By using agricultural waste, there is no need to chop down forests to get the needed materials.
Lastly, it’s a profitable source for agricultural farmers since they can sell their waste products for a reasonable price. It also cuts down on the need for disposal, which is traditionally accomplished through burning the waste, contributing to air pollution.
The impact of regular plastic on our environment
Plastic used to be a great way to store products and create sturdy toys for children. However, due to the mass production of plastic, a world problem has occurred: plastic pollution. Mass production isn’t the only issue; plastic is an oil-based product and takes up to 1000 of years to degrade. As it breaks down, it creates microplastics, which are tiny plastic particles, invisible to the human eye, that are ingested by humans and animals and absorbed by plants.
Microplastics in the ocean are being mistaken for food and eaten by fish, which are then consumed by people eating said fish. Bigger bags floating around the oceans are mistaken for jellyfish by turtles who eat them and either suffocate or starve. The plastic rings that keep a six-pack together cause marine life and wildlife to get tangled and stuck with little chance of getting loose. This eventually causes either suffocation or starvation, both unnatural and unnecessary causes of death.
The production of plastic generates many tonnes of CO2 and methane gases. These gases are slowly clouding the air, causing sunlight to be unable to reflect back into space and stay on the Earth’s surface. This causes the warming of the Earth’s temperature, which then causes the sea-levels to rise and ice caps to melt. Changes in tides lead to natural disasters and agricultural grounds being submerged and unable to grow crops.
While some plastics can be recycled, even the recycling process consumes more energy and excretes more CO2 than any other natural alternative.
The impact of natural plastics on the environment
Natural plastics, like wheat straw plastics, are biodegradable and therefore take less time to break down and are usually more susceptible to weather conditions like rain. With wheat straw being a byproduct of edible grains, there is no extra procedure required to harvest and/or farm it and because of photosynthesis, the cultivation would extract more CO2 from the air than it produces. In addition, the traditional means of disposal of wheat straw involve burning it, which also adds to CO2 levels. Also, the production of bioplastics is less energy consuming and excrete less CO2 than regular plastics, which is beneficial for the environment and the warming of the earth.
Examples of wheat straw plastic products
Wheat straw is very versatile and can be used for many different products. Since plastic made from wheat straw is very durable and heat-resistant (it can resist temperatures up to 200 degrees Fahrenheit), it’s a great material to make mugs and cups.
Wheat straw plastic is also being used to create plates, cutlery and food-containers. As mentioned above, it’s also a great way to produce single-use products since there is no need to destroy forests.