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Waste Not: Scientists Turn Pine Needles into a Renewable Plastic

pine needles 2

Recently, we learned that the fresh scent of Eastern White Pine trees growing in forests can actually help combat climate change by emitting particles into the air that promote cloud formation. As if that wasn’t cool enough, a new scientific innovation is proving the power of pine in a whole new way: by transforming waste pine needles left over from timber processing into a renewable plastic.

Needles account for 20% to 30% of a pine tree’s mass, and a lot of them tend to accumulate at saw mills. Sometimes they’re burned or composted, and sometimes they’re up cycled into biomass for fuel or mulch for gardens. But now they might just represent a much cleaner, greener future for plastics, replacing crude oil.

Chemists led by Matthew Davidson at the Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies in England found that pinene, the naturally derived organic compound that gives pine trees their smell, can be converted into a polymer using a four-step process. This is a huge breakthrough not only for plastics in general but for the effort to create plastic products from renewable resources, as previous attempts required adding some non-renewable components to give the final plastic flexibility.

This new pine needle plastic, on the other hand, could come entirely from renewable sources, eliminating the need to use fossil fuels and finding a new purpose for waste at the same time.

“We’re not talking about recycling old Christmas trees into plastics, but rather using a waste product from the industry that would otherwise be thrown away and turning it into something useful,” says PhD student Helena Quilter, who worked on the project.

Image via Wikimedia Commons



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