Could silk take a bite out of humanity’s microplastic problem?


The prefix “micro” in the word microplastic might suggest that these tiny plastic particles, by definition less than 5 millimeters long, are harmless nonsense. And although microplastics are sometimes intentionally manufactured, more often than not these tiny splinters are created by accidents or the ravages of time, ending their life as pollution in our environment. When this happens, they are far from harmless, in fact, they pose a threat to most of life on Earth.

Part of the reason is that microplastics are linked to diseases from cancer and infertility to inflammatory bowel disease. Unfortunately, they are so widespread in the environment that even remote Pacific island nations like Palau are not safe. Humanity is in dire need of an alternative and this is where researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) come into play.

As detailed in a recent article published in the scientific journal Small, MIT researchers have developed a silk-based plastic substitute for some industrial products, particularly industrial systems that currently use plastics for microencapsulation processes. Microencapsulation is a process by which tiny particles or droplets are coated with a substance that turns them into a pill-shaped object, one that protects its core from degradation due to things like exposure to air or moisture. . While this silk-based substitute wouldn’t completely solve the microplastic problem, it would actually provide some companies with a planet-friendly alternative to microplastic manufacturing products.

“We successfully demonstrate that silk proteins can be used as a technological material in agricultural and cosmetic products: they can protect and control the release of active ingredients and can be biodegraded”, Benedetto Marelli, professor of civil and environmental engineering at MIT and postdoctoral student Munchun Liu told Salon via email. “Our technology can be applied to various active ingredients, water-soluble or not. We have prepared the silk-based microcapsules using methods already widely adopted in industry.”


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Researchers at MIT believe their silk product may replace those microplastics that are intentionally added to products, a group that the European Chemical Agency currently estimates makes up around 10-15% of the global supply of microplastics. Adding to the convenience, the silk substitute wouldn’t need to be refined with the same precision and care as silk used in fine fabrics. To create high-quality threads, silkworm cocoons are carefully unwound; for the silk needed to replace microplastics, manufacturers simply need to apply a simple and scalable water-based process. This means that it will be much cheaper and easier to produce the types of silk needed to save the world than those that helped fuel medieval Europe’s economy.

That said, that doesn’t mean it will be easy to replace microplastics with silk. While the Silk Road no longer drives the global economy, there are unique economic challenges in the 21st century. Marelli and Liu explained to Salon that corporate stakeholders must work “together” to encourage the use of technologies that compensate for negative environmental impacts.

“Designing new solutions requires considering the health of the planet in the equation so that we can all benefit from progress and innovation,” explained Marelli and Liu.

MIT researchers aren’t the only scientists trying to find creative solutions to the microplastics problem. Last month a study in the scientific journal Microbial Genomics revealed that the insect Zofoba morio has a bacterial enzyme in its gut that dissolves a class of plastic known as polystyrene, which exists in styrofoam, peanut packaging, bottles, and other common household products.

“Our results support previous suggestions that superworms can help reduce [polystyrene] waste “, conclude the authors.

Until there is a long-term solution to the microplastics crisis, Marelli and Liu noted that there are immediate measures people can take to do their part to mitigate the problem.

“Consumers can obviously make a difference by limiting the use of take-use-reject products in favor of reusable ones,” Marelli and Liu wrote to Salon. “This includes obvious products such as plastic bags, tools, durable clothing, toys that have a long lifespan, tools, etc. At the same time, all stakeholders must find new solutions or define new policies that favor (or enforce) the adoption of circular materials, without compromising performance. ”

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