Spider silk could replace single-use plastic

A vegan spider-silk-like material that could replace plastic in many common products has been made by researchers at the University of Cambridge.

It is vegan-based, sustainable and could one day replace single-use plastic in many products you use every day. It is a material very similar to spider silk that has been made by researchers at the University of Cambridge. The results are reported in the journal Nature Communications. The polymer film mimics the properties of the fiber spun by arachnids, which is one of the strongest materials in nature. The elaborate could be as strong and malleable as plastic, but with the advantage of not having a negative impact on the environment. "Vegan spider silk" was created using a new approach to assembling plant proteins, mimicking silk at the molecular level.

Vegan spider silk made at Cambridge University

An energy-efficient method using all sustainable ingredients was used for the invention. Researchers modeled their polymer after spider silk, which is five times stronger than steel. As an example, a human-sized spider web would be able to trap an airplane. The film, which is very similar to plastic, can be made on a large scale and could also be used for water-resistant coatings.

The main selling point is that the material is compostable and degrades easily in most environments, unlike plastic which requires industrial composting facilities. The new product will be marketed by Xampla, a company linked to the University of Cambridge that focuses on producing replacements for plastic and single-use microplastics. The company's aim is to introduce by the end of the year a range of disposable sachets and capsules that could replace, for example, dishwasher tablets or washing machine detergent.

The discovery of the possible replacement for single-use plastic came almost by accident, while researchers were studying the behavior of proteins. The analysis was focused on understanding what happens when proteins "misbehave" and was related to studies of mental health and diseases such as Alzheimer's. "It was a surprise to discover that our research could be used to address a big sustainability problem: that of plastic pollution," said Professor Tuomas Knowles of Cambridge's Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry. The insight then led researchers to use soy protein isolate as a test plant protein and create a material that performs almost as well as engineering polymers such as low-density polyethylene, or plastic.

Plastic pollution is a major problem worldwide because it causes so much damage to our ecosystem. There are many studies aimed at finding substitutes for this material or at finding more sustainable ways to transform it, as a team from the University of Edinburgh has done, creating a method to recycle plastic by turning it into vanillin.

Stefania Bernardini