Materials

Renewable Plastic Can Be Created From Pine Needle Waste

The chemical that makes pine trees smell good can be used instead of crude oil to sustainably produce plastic.

That pine fresh scent in the air actually smells like the future of plastics.

A team of chemists in England has figured out a way to produce a renewable plastic from pine needle waste, potentially replacing a type that's currently made from crude oil. In order to do it, they turned to the chemical called pinene that gives pine trees their delicious smell.

Pinene is a naturally derived organic compound known as a terpene, and the paper industry generates a bunch of it as a waste product. Chemists at the University of Bath converted the chemical into a polymer using a four-step process. The team was led by Matthew Davidson, director of the Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies, and they published their results in the journal Polymer Chemistry.

One of the most maddening aspects of creating plastic products from renewable resources is that companies are still having to add non-renewable components. They don't want to, but sometimes lack bio-based alternatives that can perform just as well as petrochemicals.

For example, the crude-oil derived polymer caprolactone frequently gets mixed into polylactic acid derived from corn or sugar to give the final plastic flexibility, according to the University of Bath. The new pine-needle plastic could be used instead so the entire plastic would come from renewable sources.

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"We're not talking about recycling old Christmas trees into plastics, but rather using a waste product from industry that would otherwise be thrown away and turning it into something useful," PhD student Helena Quilter, who worked on the new plastic, said in a press release.

The team has only produced a few grams of the pine plastic so they plan to work on scaling it up. Once they begin generating larger quantities of the plastic, the chemists envision it could be used for food packaging, plastic bags and medical implants, they told the university.

Davidson indicated he thinks that their raw material made from pine could potentially revolutionize the chemical industry. In addition to pine, his group is looking into using other renewable sources to make plastic, such as limonene from citrus fruit waste. I'll bet his lab smells fantastic.

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