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Researchers accidentally discover mind-blowing new technology to tackle plastic pollution: 'It was a surprise'

Not only is the material water-resistant and durable, it is fully compostable.

Vegan spider silk, new technology to tackle plastic pollution

Photo Credit: iStock

Penicillin, velcro, matches, microwaves, and X-rays are some of many life-changing discoveries that were stumbled upon by accident. Now, you can add "vegan spider silk" to that list. It might just help solve the worldwide problem of single-use plastic pollution. 

When studying protein formation and interactions, scientists from the University of Cambridge became interested in the strength of spider silk despite its weak molecular bonds. 

While trying to replicate the bond formation using soy protein isolate, they created a product that looks similar to plastic but can be made from plant proteins. Not only is the material water-resistant and durable, it is fully compostable — and no spiders were required.

"It was a surprise to find our research could also address a big problem in sustainability: that of plastic pollution," professor Tuomas Knowles from the Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry at Cambridge said in a press release

"This is the culmination of something we've been working on for over 10 years, which is understanding how nature generates materials from proteins," he continued. "We didn't set out to solve a sustainability challenge — we were motivated by curiosity as to how to create strong materials from weak interactions."

The research had primarily been conducted to discover how the behavior of proteins relates to human health and disease, particularly Alzheimer's. 

In the process, they created a material that boasts a "performance equivalent to high-performance engineering plastics such as low-density polyethylene."

Now, in collaboration with the University of Cambridge spinout company Xampla, the material is set to be commercialized. By the end of 2023, a range of vegan spider silk single-use sachets and capsules will be revealed, which could be used in dishwasher and laundry tablets. The material has other possible applications, such as acting as a replacement for some types of plastic packaging.

"It's exciting to be part of this journey," Marc Rodriguez Garcia of Xampla said in the press release. "There is a huge, huge issue of plastic pollution in the world, and we are in the fortunate position to be able to do something about it."

Single-use plastics present a significant environmental challenge because they do not break down naturally, eventually becoming microplastics when they erode and then pollute global water supplies. They are then ingested by marine animals and, eventually, humans, and they have the potential to release toxic chemicals into the body. 

They also present a problem in terms of using dirty fuel in the refining and manufacturing of the material and then releasing emissions when they are burned after disposal. 

According to the Plastic Pollution Coalition, every ton of plastic burned releases a ton of planet-heating pollution. 

Vegan spider silk, therefore, could be a huge discovery in reducing the harmful carbon pollution produced in the life cycle of plastics, offering a massive benefit to the planet in the fight to stop global temperatures from rising. 

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