Scientist Develops 'Green' Solution to Plastics Waste

Scientist Develops 'Green' Solution to Plastics Waste

As plastic wastes continue to stack up in landfills throughout the country and the world, a Cornell University fiber scientist is edging closer to creating a greener alternative. Researcher Anil Netravali’s solution to the plastics problem? Fully biodegradable composites made of soybean protein and other biodegradable plastics and plant-based fibers.

"These new fully biodegradable, environment-friendly green composites have good properties and could replace plastic parts in the interiors of cars and trains, in computers and in packaging materials and other consumer products," says Netravali, a professor of fiber science in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell. "They also provide excellent insulation against heat and noise for use in applications such as cars. Although the plant-based fibers may not be as strong as graphite and Kevlar®, for example, they are low in cost, biodegradable and replenishable on a yearly basis," he says.

Netravali recently presented his research on green composites made from ramie fibers (which have a feel similar to silk), which are obtained from the stem of an Asian perennial shrub and the resin made from a soy-based material. The researcher notes that instead of nondegradable plastics based on petroleum products, green composites (also known as reinforced plastics) use natural fibers that, for strength, are embedded in a matrix made of a plant-based or other resin.

"They will be made from yearly renewable agricultural sources and would be environmentally friendly because they would naturally biodegrade once they were thrown on a compost pile," says Netravali of plant-based green composites that he says could become inexpensive alternatives for many mass-produced items.

Netravali's research group is working with a number of fibers, including those obtained from kenaf stems, pineapple and henequen leaves and banana stems. The resin materials he is researching include commercial resins, such as polyvinyl alcohol and polylactones, and those derived from microorganisms.