Cleopatra Dube |15 August 2017

Plastics have for years been and continue to be an environmental nightmare due to their nature of not being able to degrade in nature. So much so that a little over a decade ago, as a measure to encourage people from reusing them, retail shops started to sell them. However, ground-breaking research by local South African scientists is changing the nightmare into a sweet dream. According to the researchers, “In South Africa, about 90% of single use flexible plastic films (carrier bags, agricultural films and others) as well as short term use consumer plastic items are produced from petroleum based chemical materials and are thus non-biodegradable when disposed in natural environments, which creates serious pollution that persists to cause environmental damage for decades”.

A team at the CSIR has successfully developed bioplastics – plastics that degrade 100% naturally in mud, soil, water and compost in about 3 – 6 months. The plastics are manufactured from local biomass (maize and sugar cane byproducts) using local technology. Lead researcher, Dr Sudhakar Muniyasami said these bioplastics can be recycled and have the same durability as normal plastics but with more advantages. When degrading, they enrich the soil because they are made from biomass.

The development of SA bioplastic industry and bioproducts is feasible due to the fact that the biomass is abundantly available which was recently identified in the DST bioeconomy RDI programmes.  No great achievement is without its disadvantages. Dr Sudhakar tells us that the price for these plastics will be 2 – 3 times the price of normal plastics when still in the research and development stages but prices will go down next year when they start being commercialized. Furthermore, the bioplastics will have to be recycled separate from normal plastics. As such, they will have to be labelled differently and the masses have to be educated on the labelling and recycle numbering so as to not mix and have them contaminate normal ones.  

The research gives rise to the green economy which will require new skills, create new job opportunities and create a new industry if properly implemented in the future” so says Dr Sudhakar. 

Dr. Sudhakar Muniyasamy, is working as a Senior Researcher in the field of bioplastics and biodegradable polymers for packaging applications at the CSIR Material Science and Manufacturing Unit, Polymer and Composites Research group in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. He received his PhD degree in Chemical Science from University of Pisa, Italy (20072010). He had postdoc experiences from University of Guelph-Canada (2011-2013).  He has published 16 peer-reviewed journal articles, contributed 4 book chapters and 1 book.