It is plant-based, sustainable, scalable and incredibly strong. And thus a promising solution to the comprehensive plastic problem.
Pollution from single-use plastics is one of the major environmental disasters of this generation. Because plastic hardly degrades in the environment, in principle it never disappears. It then ends up not only in the ocean, but also in our own drinking water and food. Still, it is not so easy to find a suitable replacement for plastic. And so the supermarkets are still full of them. Although that may change in the short term thanks to an inventive and promising newly developed material.
In the new study researchers have managed to imitate spider silk. Scientists have been interested in spider silk for some time. Spider silk is one of the strongest materials in nature. Spiders use this to build their webs. The spokes of a spider’s web are five times stronger than a steel wire of the same thickness would be. And so scientists like to ignore this trick of spiders.
“We first became interested in spider silk about ten years ago,” Tuomas Knowles said in an interview with Scientias.nl. “We wanted to find out how a spider is able to make such strong materials from silk fibers. In the beginning we were therefore mainly driven by curiosity – finding a replacement for plastic was not our original intention. But over time, we realized that science can have a significant positive impact on our planet.”
Alternative to plastic
Several researchers have already studied the extent to which spider silk could possibly serve as an alternative to plastic. And that looks promising. However, there are some bumps in the road. “It’s not practical to breed spiders,” Knowles says. “And while it is possible to make synthetic silk, it is challenging to do it in a sustainable and cost-efficient way. Therefore, you can actually learn much better from the spider and use the same approach to make natural materials.”
The researchers decided to put it to the test. And that eventually led to the development of “vegan spider silk.” “Scientists have worked directly with silk materials as a substitute for plastic,” said researcher Rodriguez Garcia. “But in that case it remains an animal product. In a sense, we’ve come up with a ‘vegan spider silk’: we made the same material, but without the spider.”
The material is made using vegetable proteins that mimic silk at the molecular level (see also the video below). In the study, the researchers used soy protein isolate, because it is readily available as a by-product of soybean oil production. But that is certainly not the limit. “We can manufacture microplastics and disposable plastics from various plant proteins,” says Knowles. “We can even get them from waste products.”
The result is astonishing. The new material turns out to be just as strong as many commonly used, contemporary plastics. In addition, the researchers were even able to create water-resistant coatings. In addition, the material is compostable at home, while other bioplastics can often only be broken down in industrial composting facilities. “It’s a strong, natural yet high-quality material,” Knowles sums up. And that means that this ‘vegan spider silk’ may be a wonderful alternative to disposable plastic.
Dishwasher tablets and detergent capsules
Now that the material’s potential has been proven, it’s time to try it out in the ‘real world’. And that in the short term. “We hope to bring the first products to market next year,” said Knowles. “We initially focus on the design of sachets and capsules that are used for everyday products such as dishwasher tablets and detergent capsules. In both applications, the recycling of plastic is not feasible. Because our materials are 100 percent natural and not chemically modified, they cause no harm when released into the environment. They are actually food for microbes. This directly reduces the harmful plastic pollution that affects our planet so hard.”
It means vegan spider silk is a good step towards a plastic-free world. It is plant-based, sustainable, scalable and strong. And so it is a promising solution for polluting single-use plastic. “We know that plastic waste is a huge problem,” Garcia says. “Fortunately, we are in a great position to do something about it.”
“‘Vegan spider silk’ provides sustainable alternative to single-use plastics” – University of Cambridge
Interview with Tuomas Knowles
Image at the top of this article: Xampla