A Western student has pioneered an innovative solution to the plastic pollution problem by developing biodegradable bioplastics.
Rebecca Koshy, a fourth-year chemical and biochemical engineering student, conducted her research as part of an Undergraduate Summer Research Internship (USRI) program, focused on creating sustainable alternatives to traditional plastics using materials sourced from wastewater, forest and food waste.
The USRI program provides undergraduate students with engaged research experiences and opportunities to learn new research methods and techniques alongside faculty mentors. It also helps develop skills in preparation for future careers.
Koshy’s project aimed to develop bioplastics that mimic the functionality of conventional plastics while degrading naturally over time.
“Despite the numerous benefits of plastics, their environmental impact is undeniable. The objective of my project was to find a way to create plastics that serve their purpose without leaving a lasting negative footprint,” she said.
To achieve this goal, Koshy identified key materials and their precise ratios to create biodegradable bioplastics. The mixture she discovered incorporates algae, polysaccharide (derived from orange peels), glycerol (from plant and animal fats and oils), pine needles and a hydrophobic coating of beeswax.
“The incorporation of forest waste, like pine needles, has been instrumental in enhancing the bioplastic’s structural integrity, while the use of a polysaccharide and glycerol adds strength and flexibility,” she added.
A feature of this bioplastic is its hydrophobic properties, thanks to the beeswax coating. This makes the bioplastic water-resistant and prevents immediate dissolution when submerged in water, adding an additional layer of durability and longevity to the material.
Addressing a real-world problem
“This is really important research that addresses a real-world problem and I am incredibly proud of Rebecca, who has applied her knowledge to benefit society,” said Amarjeet Bassi, Koshy’s research advisor and professor and department chair of chemical and biochemical engineering at the Faculty of Engineering.
Asked about the potential impact of this innovation, Koshy said, “The implications are vast. Biodegradable bioplastics could significantly reduce plastic pollution and associated environmental damage. It could also lead to a substantial reduction in carbon emissions by utilizing natural and renewable resources from waste sources.”
Another impact of Koshy’s innovation extends to various stakeholders. The environment stands to benefit significantly from reduced plastic pollution, while consumers will have access to more eco-conscious products. Industries that embrace these sustainable materials can enhance their corporate responsibility image and lead market trends toward environmentally friendly practices.
“The opportunity to play a role in advancing sustainable practices and offering a potential solution that aligns with environmental protection and responsible consumption is truly gratifying,” said Koshy.
Participating in the USRI program has provided Koshy with valuable insights into chemical engineering. She highlighted the practical application of classroom concepts, refining her understanding of chemical processes and their real-world implications. Through experimentation, data analysis, and problem-solving, Koshy has honed her skills in designing and conducting experiments.
Koshy encouraged fellow students to engage in research, highlighting the tangible benefits of hands-on involvement.
“Research enriches your educational journey, offering a sense of purpose and accomplishment as you actively address real-world challenges and pioneer innovative solutions,” she said.