As we all know, most plastics are synthetic materials made with petroleum. Back in the day, when young Benjamin Braddock was encouraged to "go into plastics," it seemed like a promising future. Little did 'The Graduate' know his destiny would be linked to the release of toxins into the environment, greenhouse gasses and landfill capacities. His little miracle product has been slammed for threatening the ocean and even our food supply. I'm on board about the evils of plastic, but can we really go back? Just think about Tupperware and Rubbermaid containers, toys, disposable cups, that fork you just used in the cafeteria, CDs, car bumpers, the inside of your refrigerator door, water pipes that aren't made of lead, drink bottles, toothbrushes, shower curtains, eyeglasses, your cell phone and iPod. And, of course, there's the computer, keyboard and mouse that you're using right now.
Wouldn't it be nice if we could somehow use plants instead of petrochemicals to make plastic? It might not be as crazy a notion as you might think. Scientists at the Brookhaven National Laboratory say plants could be the "ultimate 'green' factories, engineered to pump out the kinds of raw materials we now obtain from petroleum-based chemicals." They've teamed up with Dow AgroSciences to try to engineer a plant that produces compounds that could potentially be used to make plastics one day. The full report will appear in the still-unpublished December issue of Plant Physiology, but for now, here's the lowdown from Brookhaven biochemist John Shanklin, who led the research:
“We’ve engineered a new metabolic pathway in plants for producing a kind of fatty acid that could be used as a source of precursors to chemical building blocks for making plastics such as polyethylene. The raw materials for most precursors currently come from petroleum or coal-derived synthetic gas. Our new way of providing a feedstock sourced from fatty acids in plant seeds would be renewable and sustainable indefinitely. Additional technology to efficiently convert the plant fatty acids into chemical building blocks is needed, but our research shows that high levels of the appropriate feedstock can be made in plants.”