The common use of plastic is one of the biggest environmental problems in the world. Every year, millions of tons of oil-based plastic waste are produced, and plastic pollutes lands and rivers.
Microplastics are found in water and even in the snow on top of the mountains, Antarctica and the bottom of the oceans.
Researchers at the University of Cambridge were looking to solve this problem and find ways to produce more environmentally friendly packaging. They took inspiration from spider silk and created a "vegan spider silk." The plant-based material has the same strength as plastic films and may replace single-use plastic.
The spiders web is one of the most remarkable and strongest materials found in nature. The researchers found that despite the molecular bonds holding spider silk together are weak; other dense bonds reinforce it. But animal-based proteins are difficult in terms of scaling up for commercial use on ethical grounds.
Dr Tuomas Knowles, from Cambridge's Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry, who is an expert in protein folding and studies the impact of misshapen proteins on human health, worked on developing a method that allows material scientists to avoid having to work with animal proteins.
His team worked to replicate the structures found in spider silk with a plant protein isolate derived from soy. Soy proteins are highly different to those of spider silk. The academics were able to strip the soy protein back and reform it into the shape of spider silk to mimic its properties. The soy protein plastic alternative doesn't need any special recycling treatment and can be left on domestic compost.
Dr Knowles said: "Because all proteins are made of polypeptide chains, under the right conditions, we can cause plant proteins to self-assemble just like spider silk."
Study co-author Dr Marc Rodriguez Garcia added: "In a way, we've come up with 'vegan spider silk' – we've created the same material without the spider."
A University of Cambridge spin-out company called Xampla is now working on commercialising the product. Xampla plans to launch a range of sachets and capsules to replace products like dishwasher tablet wrappers and laundry capsules by the end of 2021.