Student Vox


/ 18 April 2021

Would you rather live to survive or live for the sake of convenience?

As a nature of life, there is an intrinsic revolving theme that every member of society yearns: the improvement of one’s welfare.

Perhaps it has already been established in the minds of people that the ultimate goal of every innovation is to alleviate certain dilemmas faced by the world—-that is, to secure the wellbeing, prosperity, and happiness of the present generation and the future that is yet to come. In a specific sense, humans aim to achieve convenience, denoting the best quality of livelihood with the least amount of effort while maintaining a community that is free from certain problems.

As a result, this deliberately upsurges the standard of living. Inherently demanded by humans, it serves as the causation of curiosity in response to problems faced by humanity, thereby instigating the manifestation of a solution: an invention.

In the 1860s, an emerging trend for the appealing game of billiards had proven to be a hefty pressure to what was then the existing supply of natural ivory. The main component of these amusing spheres was acquired through the gathering of elephant tusks, which would insinuate the slaughter of these creatures. In this light, a private company called New York firm decided to offer a grant of $10,000 to anyone who could determine a viable substitute for the material.

Captivated by this prize, John Wesley Hyatt, an American inventor, decided to search for such a substitute. In 1869, he decided to conduct a study about a compound that could possibly be polymerized into a form that resembles the properties of natural ivory. The answer lied on a natural polymer found along the very depths of our plain sight: cellulose from plants! By treating it with the organic compound camphor, Hyatt discovered a process that could create what is known as celluloid, a material configurable in various shapes and sizes, and could imitate a sundry of features across diverse substances including ivory. Hence, the shortage of natural supplies of ivory was resolved.

Eventually, more circumstances accounted for more demands for materials as configurable as Hyatt’s celluloid. His experiment served as one of the fundamental steps into industrial manufacturing and the foundations of material science which are geared around polymer manipulation. In turn, these renowned polymers came to be known as plastics. But, what exactly are plastics?

Plastics are artificial substances composed of an extensive array of various organic polymers such as polyethylene, polyvinyl chloride, and nylon. Generally, plastics are most famous for their characteristics which pose significant convenience in daily living. Possessing the capacity to be molded into different configurations, set into choices of rigid or elastic forms, and exist as a lightweight material with a great deal of mechanical strength, plastics have carved their way into a vital role that professes a huge impact on humanity.

Disciplines from different industries utilize the advantages of this synthetic material; from construction, electrical and electronic applications, packaging, and vehicles, plastics remain as one of the most eminent materials used by people.

However, alongside such versatility and significance, plastics have one major drawback.

With the dawn of rising concerns revolving around environmental issues, the existence of plastics has been deemed as one of the main contributors directly affecting the deterioration of the planet, where its pitfall resides in its non-degradability, wherein naturally, it would take 400-1000 years to fully decay.

Around the globe, approximately 300 million tons of plastic have been globally produced in 2015. According to research, 55-60% of these comes from just 5 countries—-wherein 4 are part of the Southeast Asian region: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. Subsequently, 67 million tons of plastic from packaging waste alone are predicted to have accumulated over the years both inland and sea, an alarming number that stances serious danger to the prosperity of native inhabitants and wildlife.

In the course of plastic production, a particularly petroleum-based plastic, it is an essential step to process oil through a chemical process which would result in a hefty emission of carbon, the principal gas that is insistent in driving global warming, alongside many other dangerous gases that prompt universal problems. Furthermore, plastic is constituted with harmful chemicals that scatter upon contact with land or sea. In this light, plastic translates to humanity as expediency.

In search for an accurate solution, scientists have been researching on means of expediting the process of degradation of plastic; although, with the distinctive knowledge of these materials being highly massive in terms of molecular mass (as instigated by its polymerization), by theory, it would be very difficult to discover a way on accelerating the aforementioned process. This drawback instead initiated the search for an alternative solution, in turn, giving scientists the idea of using biodegradable plastics (bioplastics) to replace conventional plastics.

As opposed to conventional plastics, bioplastics are decomposable and are capable of easy degradation, either when given a short span of time or exposed to a specific environment. The demand for bioplastics has constantly been increasing together with escalating concerns for the planet’s health.

In previous findings, it has been discovered that the global production capacity of bioplastic has amplified by 38% per year throughout 2003-2007 and is projected to reach 3.45 million tons of annual production in 2020. However, the lack of technological advancements and proper resources leads to the issue of a relatively high production cost for bioplastics. Frequently, scientists would lack a base component that would make up a bioplastic matrix, either because costs for a specific material would prove to be too costly, or availability would be insufficient to start an industry. A solution to this is to explore undermined potential and exploit unutilized reserves.

Agricultural wastes or waste biomass are litters that are regarded as residual and have no direct use for society. Being non-product outputs, normally, these accumulate from unnecessary elements obtained from agricultural processes. The cultivation of fruits and vegetables, for instance, would produce biomasses wherein all parts of these fruits and vegetables are not immediately desirable or needed.

Pineapple crown leaves serve as a perfect example of agricultural waste, for only the body of pineapple is consumed and employed in different applications. Pineapple is one of the biggest sources of biomass for natural fiber production. Its fibers are known as “hard fibers”, and are commonly used in the industry as reinforcements for plastics. Two Southeast Asian countries alone, the Philippines and Thailand, produce millions of tons of pineapple annually. The Philippines, the second-largest producer of pineapple just next to Thailand, produces a whopping volume of 2.7 million tons last 2018. This huge waste biomass is blatantly and highly underutilized for its great potential.

In a research, it was ascertained that pineapple crown leaves contain 70-83% cellulose, which is discerned as one of the highest values found in plants. Cellulose is a polysaccharide, meaning it is composed of longer chains than monosaccharides.  Unique and intensive properties of mechanical strength and chemical stability found in cellulose are brought about by its molecular structure. Hence, cellulose becomes a great component for bioplastic matrices.

Accordingly, there are numerous other natural components used for creating bioplastic matrices. Ranging from starch, lignin, pectin, and more, natural components could be utilized by the present generation in order to attain sustainability whilst not sacrificing convenience.

Recently, a Cebuano scientist from the Philippines, Denxybel Montinola, was able to synthesize a bioplastic from mango peelings and carrageenan seaweed components. In an interview, Montinola stated:

[This] bioplastic is created using components called pectin and carrageenan, which are derived from mango peels and seaweed. Not only we can make a bioplastic out of it, but we can also create a tissue scaffold that protects the burned area of our skin for example, or stop local bleeding.

What once was trash, Montinola was able to transform into something that poses a significant impact on human life.

Now that there’s a substitute to the lingering problem of plastic, what now of the plastic that has been made and continues to dwell amongst our lands and seas?

This questioned was answered by the Philippines. Why not turn them into Ecobricks? Ecobricks are basically bricks wherein plastic bottles containing smaller plastics are integrated to create a matrix of blocks. Besides being a plausible substitute to limited brick supply, trash is being utilized to create bricks essentially for almost free, due to the low value of garbage! And with that, there has been not much significant difference between a regular ecobrick with that of normal ones. Amazing, right? Since then, buildings, homes, schools, and other constructions have been made with Ecobricks, both helping alleviate the problem of pollution control and construction facilities!

So now comes the question once more: Now that you’ve seen the possibilities of sustainable living through STEM, would you rather live to survive or live for the sake of convenience? Well, why bother choosing one when you can choose both!