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Microplastics are tiny fragments shed from plastic products that are nearly indestructible and are now being found in unexpected places like our arteries, lungs, and even placentas. These materials can take hundreds of years to break down, contributing to pollution in both the environment and our bodies. Finding alternatives to traditional plastics has become crucial in light of this issue, and new research from the University of California San Diego and Algenesis shows that plant-based polymers can biodegrade in under seven months, even at the microplastic level.

The team behind the research, which includes UC San Diego professors, alumni, and former research scientists, have been working on developing biodegradable algae-based polymers for over six years. These materials are designed to break down completely at the end of their useful life, preventing them from accumulating in the environment. By grinding their product into microparticles and testing it in a compost setting, the researchers confirmed that it was being digested by microbes through respirometry, water flotation, and chemical analysis using gas chromatography/mass spectrometry.

The results of the testing showed that the algae-based microplastics biodegraded significantly faster than petroleum-based microplastics. At intervals of 90 and 200 days, almost none of the petroleum-based microplastics had biodegraded, while over two thirds of the algae-based microplastics had broken down after 90 days and 97% had disappeared after 200 days. Chemical analysis further confirmed that the polymer was being broken down to its starting plant materials, indicating successful biodegradation.

In addition to being eco-friendly and non-toxic, the plant-based polymers developed by Algenesis have also shown promise in terms of usability in existing manufacturing equipment. The company has partnered with various businesses to incorporate the new materials into products such as coated fabrics and cell phone cases. Despite initial skepticism about the feasibility of creating a sustainable alternative to traditional plastics, the researchers are hopeful that their work will inspire further progress in this area.

The implications of microplastics are still being studied, and the health and environmental impacts are just starting to be understood. Developing biodegradable alternatives to traditional plastics is seen as a crucial step in addressing this issue, and the research conducted by the UC San Diego and Algenesis team represents a significant advancement in this direction. By demonstrating that plant-based polymers can biodegrade at the microplastic level, the researchers have provided a promising solution to the growing problem of plastic pollution.

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