A major study in Southeast Queensland is testing how quickly biodegradable plastics break down in waterways, as researchers search for solutions to the world’s growing plastics problem. The project is underway at the $13 million Australian Research Council Training Centre for Bioplastics and Biocomposites at The University of Queensland, which has been officially opened by the Deputy Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Research Council, Dr Richard Johnson.

Director, Associate Professor Steven Pratt said the Centre was responding to unprecedented growth in demand for bioderived and biodegradable products with more than 10 million tonnes of plastic waste accumulating in oceans each year. “One of the aims is to develop products that are capable of biodegrading in ambient environments to avoid the accumulation of micro and nanoplastics,” Dr Pratt said. “The prospect of manufacturing a commercially available plastic with exceptional properties, but without the adverse legacy for the environment, is an exciting one. “We’re well placed to do this in Australia as we have an abundance of natural bioresources – such as organic wastes – that are needed for manufacturing these products.”

UQ Vice Chancellor Professor Deborah Terry said experts at the Centre were working to develop commercial solutions that meet the needs of businesses, consumers, and the environment. “We’re working alongside industry and government partners to deliver advances in the production and manufacture of the ‘bioplastics of the future’,” Professor Terry said. “One of the strategies to deal with the longevity of plastics is to switch to biodegradable alternatives, but we need to know more about how they behave in the natural environment. “There is a lot of research on what happens to biodegradable plastic in soil, compost, on land, and in landfills, but we actually don’t know what happens when these materials enter the marine environment.”

UQ PhD candidate Tracey Read has taken up this challenge and is examining how biodegradable plastics, like packaging and plastic bags, react in water. 

More than 2,000 samples of varying types and thicknesses have been submerged at four southeast Queensland sites, including Dunwich in Moreton Bay, Rivergate Marina in the Brisbane River and Spinnaker Sound Marina in Pumicestone Passage. The fourth location, above ground outdoor tanks located within a turtle rehabilitation area at Sea World on the Gold Coast, provides a more controlled environment.

Early results have found PHA plastics which are bioderived, degraded completely in water after 7 months but other bioplastics degraded by a little as one per cent in a year. Full results will be published in the coming months.

The training centre is a partnership between UQ, QUT, the Queensland Government, Kimberly-Clark Australia, Plantic Technologies, Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation, Minderoo Foundation, and the City of Gold Coast.

July 19, 2023 Published at https://www.uq.edu.au/news/article/2023/07/research-tests-whether-bioplastics-break-down-moreton-bay