An eco-friendly method based on silk has been developed by scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US to replace the harmful microplastics that are added to food, paint, and cosmetics.
What are microplastics?
Microplastics, tiny plastic particles that are now widely spread in the air, water, and soil, are becoming increasingly recognized as a severe pollution threat and have been discovered in the bloodstreams of humans and animals.
The US National Ocean Service defines microplastics as “tiny plastic particles less than five millimeters long, that can be damaging to our ocean and aquatic life.”
Plastics have replaced natural alternatives in cosmetic and personal care formulations since they first appeared in cosmetics 50 years ago, according to a 2015 factsheet from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). In addition to cosmetics, paints and agricultural chemicals also include microplastics.
Wide market use of microplastics
The active component (or substances) in interest are typically protected from degradation by exposure to air or moisture by the microplastics that are frequently utilized in industrial products until they are required. They limit negative impacts on their surroundings and provide a slow release of the active component for a predetermined amount of time.
Benedetto Marelli, an MIT professor of civil and environmental engineering, wrote about this source in an article published in the journal ‘Small’.
“According to estimates from the European Chemical Agency, the number of microplastics that have been purposefully put into the environment accounts for about 10-15% of the overall amount in the environment.”
According to the European Chemicals Agency, a few of these microplastics are purposefully added to a range of goods, including paints, cosmetics, detergents, and agricultural chemicals, adding to an estimated 50,000 tonnes annually in the European Union alone. The EU has already made the announcement that these added, nonbiodegradable microplastics must be removed by 2025, motivating businesses and people to look for appropriate solutions that do not harm the environment.
Can silk replace microplastics?
Researchers have discovered that low-grade silk can replace purposely used microplastics in cosmetics, vitamins, agrochemicals, and paints, providing a biodegradable, non-toxic solution to pollution.
According to Marelli, who was quoted by TRTWorld, “We cannot fix the entire microplastics problem with one solution that fits them all. 10% of a large amount is still a significant number. We’ll tackle global pollution and climate change one percent at a time.”
The highlight of this idea is that the new alternative material may be made with other types of silk protein besides the superior silk that is utilized to make exquisite garments.
Muchun Liu, an MIT postdoc, claims it is “widely accessible and less expensive,” cited TRTWorld.
While the tiny threads required for fabric must be carefully extracted from silkworm cocoons, non-textile grade cocoons can be utilized for this purpose, and the silk strands can simply be dissolved using a scalable water-based technique.
In a paper published in the journal “Small,” the team discussed how the processing is so simple and adaptable that the final material can be modified to operate on current production machinery, possibly offering a straightforward “drop in” solution using existing facilities.
Since silk is non-toxic and naturally dissolves in the body, it is recognised as being safe for use in food and medicine. In laboratory studies, the researchers observed that the silk-based coating material could be utilised to create a standard water-soluble using the existing industry, standard spray-based manufacturing equipment.
Then a corn crop was used in a greenhouse test of a microencapsulated herbicide product. According to MIT PhD student Muchun Liu, the test results indicated it performed even better than an existing commercial product while causing less harm to the plants.
Then a corn crop was used in a greenhouse test of a microencapsulated herbicide product. According to MIT PhD student Muchun Liu, the test results indicated it performed even better than an existing commercial product while causing less damage to the plants.
Liu explained that the silk material’s tunability holds the key to making the material compatible with already-in-use machinery.
Despite being created and processed in a water solution, the material can either be hydrophobic (water-repelling) or hydrophilic (water-attracting), or any combination thereof, depending on the application. It can also be tailored to have the same properties as the material it is intended to replace.
According to Liu, the new technique can make use of low-grade silk that cannot be used to produce garments and that is generally discarded in large quantities since it has no practical applications. Additionally, it can be used to recycle used silk fabric that would otherwise end up in landfills.
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