Useful waste: New bioplastics from wood, and banana plant rugs

In this week’s global progress briefs, meet the new ghost busters – the people who are making it their business to trap greenhouse gases from our old fridges and air conditioners.  

1. United States

Researchers from the University of Maryland and Yale have made a breakthrough in the search for sustainable plastic alternatives, developing a wood-based bioplastic that disintegrates in a few months. For comparison, conventional plastic can take centuries to break down. The new bioplastic is created by using a biodegradable solvent to deconstruct wood powder found at lumber mills into a slurry, which can then be shaped into common plastic products, such as shopping bags and other packaging.

Why We Wrote This

Creativity to benefit the environment reigns in this week’s progress roundup. Scientists have made a promising new wood-based bioplastic, and in Uganda a small business is using banana plant stalks in handmade consumer products.

Other experimental bioplastics have often lacked the strength to compete with petroleum-based plastics, but the scientists say their product showed high mechanical strength during tests, the capacity to hold liquid, and resistance to ultraviolet light. At the end of a product’s life, the bioplastic will quickly decompose in soil, or can be re-slurried and used again.
New Atlas, Nature Sustainability

2. Peru

The Peruvian government has taken steps to establish a rainforest reserve for uncontacted Indigenous peoples, a milestone for protecting Amazon tribes living in isolation. After nearly two decades of discussion, the 2.7 million-acre Yavarí Tapiche reserve in Loreto has officially been deemed the first reserve under the country’s PIACI law, which governs territories for isolated tribes and initial contact. The Yavarí Tapiche reserve is home to several groups, such as the Matsés and Remo peoples, and sits on the Brazil-Peru border. Next, the Ministry of Culture must approve a formal protection plan to keep away threats like drug traffickers and illegal loggers.

“The creation of Yavarí Tapiche ... is a great step, a great advance,” says Angela Arriola, an Indigenous peoples policy specialist, “but management measures need to be implemented, only categorization is not a guarantee of protection.”

3. Ireland

Rachael Blackmore became the first female jockey to win the Grand National horse race, one of the sport’s most prestigious events. The Irish rider and thoroughbred Minella Times completed the 173rd edition of the grueling steeplechase at Liverpool’s Aintree Racecourse in April. Ms. Blackmore was the 20th female jockey to compete in the race, which has allowed women to participate since 1975.

Tim Goode/Reuters
Rachael Blackmore is the first female jockey to win the Grand National horse race, a grueling steeplechase competition.

“This is the most-watched race in the world. There are people who are going to hear about this in all different parts of the world, and it’s just brilliant for horseracing and I’m delighted for Rachael,” said Katie Walsh, who set the previous record for female jockeys in the Grand National when she finished third in the 2012 race. “She’s an inspiration to male and female jockeys. The result couldn’t have been any better.”
Al Jazeera

4. Uganda

A startup in Uganda is making consumer products from edible banana plant material that would otherwise go to waste. Uganda is sub-Saharan Africa’s top producer of bananas and plantains, with an estimated 75% of all farmers growing some form of banana. They typically leave the stalks to rot after harvesting fruit. That’s where TexFad saw an opportunity. The company, which launched in 2013 and employs 23 people, runs the stalks through a machine to create long fibers, hangs the leathery strands to dry, and uses the material to create products such as carpets.

Abubaker Lubowa/Reuters
Managing director Kimani Muturi shows off a TexFad hair extension made from banana trunk fibers near Kampala, Uganda, April 3, 2021. When finished, consumers can compost the product. The company also makes rugs and other handwoven textiles.

Last year, the company made $41,000 in sales, and the managing director expects TexFad to double production in 2021 to 2,400 carpets, some of which will be exported to customers in the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States for the first time. The company also creates hair extensions (used ones can be composted) and is working on a process to soften the fibers for use in clothing.
Interesting Engineering, Reuters

5. India

A group of law school students, advised by a board of legal scholars, is helping the public understand complex laws and court decisions in India. Aswini Ramesh founded Law Rewired last summer to help demystify India’s legal system and empower people to understand their rights. “Through my work as an activist, I’d often travel to workshops and other social initiatives ... and be flooded with queries about day-to-day legal issues,” she says. Today, the project involves about 22 students from 10 law schools.

On the coalition’s website, users can find a glossary of common legal terms, summaries of important court decisions, and “decoded” laws on topics ranging from environmental protections to intellectual property. The coalition is adding a criminal law section soon. The group also answers 10 to 25 reader questions every month, such as whether workplace harassment rules can be applied to virtual workplaces. Law Rewired is also collaborating with the Child Awareness Project to produce helpful social media posts about laws relating to women, children, health, and education.
The Philadelphia Citizen, Law Rewired


A global network is helping reroute dangerous refrigerants before they leak into the atmosphere. Freezers and refrigerators have housed some of the most potent greenhouse gases, including the compound known as R12, a chlorofluorocarbon with roughly 10,000 times the destructive potential of CO2. The refrigerants pumped into modern units are better, but still pose global warming potential. When disposed of improperly – either knowingly or unknowingly – these gases are released into the atmosphere and contribute to climate change.

Issei Kato/Reuters/File
Broken refrigerators sit at a temporary waste site in Japan, July 13, 2018.

Tradewater, a company that collects and destroys greenhouse gases and sells the carbon offset credits, is coordinating with governments and businesses around the world to dispose of the gases safely. Its teams are sometimes called “chill hunters” or “ghostbusters” for the way they track and trap the gases, transferring them from discarded refrigerator cylinders into a large container. Tradewater then incinerates the recovered gases. The group reports that 4 million to 5 million metric tons have been kept out of the atmosphere so far. Ángel Toledo has run a waste disposal plant on the edge of Guatemala City for 16 years, but only dealt with refrigerant gases since 2018. “It’s like a dream, helping the environment ... [by preventing these] gases from reaching the atmosphere.”

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