Left, Stevens Brumbley, associate 
professor of biological sciences, 
works at the new Research Greenhouse 
Complex at the University of North 
Texas's Discovery Park in Denton. 

He is engineering sugarcane to
create bioplastics as an
alternative to petroleum-based plastics. 
Photo courtesy of UNT/Jonathan Reynolds.

Nov. 25, 2013

By Minnie Payne

While controversy looms around genetically modified plants in the food industry, a local professor says GMOs can play a role in replacing petroleum-based plastics and reducing environmentally harmful litter.

University of North Texas Dr. Stevens Brumbley, along with five graduate and five undergraduate students, have expounded on an idea of Brazilian sugar exporter Copersucar in the late 1990s of using sugarcane to make bioplastic products.  

"Genes are taken from bacteria, which make the polymers naturally, similar to the way that humans make and store fat away for a rainy day until the energy is needed,” explains Brumbley. “Then the genes are inserted into sugarcane, so that the genes are part of the sugarcane genome. Then the sugarcane plant reads those genes and makes bioplastic.”

To simplify, Brumbley further explains that the plants are natural -- just genetically modified by moving genes from bacteria to the plant.   

“It is natural, with human assist,” adds Brumbley.  

According to Brumbley, natural bioplastic is extremely versatile, in that hard plastics for such things as computers can be made along with flexible items for such things as packaging, plastic bags, etc.  

“The very nice thing is that unlike most of the plastic currently being used, sugarcane plastic is completely biodegradable,” says Brumbley. “When put into nature, it can be seen as food. The microbes will feed on the bioplastics, breaking them completely down to carbon dioxide and water.”  

One of the goals of developing bioplastic is to replace petroleum-based plastics that are non-renewable. A second benefit is that there is a huge problem of plastic going into the environment as waste.

Above, Biology doctoral student Claudia Gonzalez cuts a few stalks of sugarcane in the Discovery Park greenhouse as the first step in the process to transform them into bioplastics. Photo courtesy of UNT/Harris Buchanan.

“The plastic that we are producing will break down and won’t be a long-term pollution problem,” Brumbley remarks.  

Brumbley says that legislation called “end of life” is presently being introduced around the world in an effort to improve our environment.

“If a manufacturer wants to sell a computer, car, etc. in the European Union, a union of 28-member states located primarily in Europe, they have to have a plan as to what is going to happen to that product when it is no longer needed,” Brumbley explains.  “If they want to dispose of the product in a landfill, they will have to pay heavy taxes to the European Union.  Companies will pass this charge onto consumers, building the cost of disposal at end of life into the product; at the same time, many companies are currently asking for biorenewable and biodegradable compounds that can replace the hard-to-recycle plastics made from the finite resource of petroleum.”

The UNT sugarcane bioplastic project is currently pre-commercial, in that there is a regulatory process or commercial release of a genetically modified crop.

“We have to grow the sugarcane in the field, and there is a process that we have to go through with the U.S. federal government to meet regulatory hurdles in order to release,” explains Brumbley. “It will possibly take about 10 years to get through regulatory hurdles.”  

Brumbley says that UNT is a great university for which to work.

“They [UNT] are building a research program to work from both the plant side and engineering side to get bioplastic products into the market place,” he says. “They built clusters for both plant science and engineering.  

“We’re also fortunate to have a wonderful student body, full of bright students. I’m extremely proud to work here.”

Doctoral student Claudia Gonzalez concurs with Brumbley that the bioplastic program is great, in that it gives her and other students opportunities for scientific careers and prepares them for changes that are presently taking place worldwide in bettering environmental issues.  

“We have a lot of support from a talented professor, as well as being privileged to use excellent instruments for our analysis and research,” Gonzales shares. “What we’re doing is exciting.”

Minnie Payne is Carrolton-based freelance writer. She’s written for Pegasus News and presently freelances for Living Magazine and Frisco Style Magazine. She can be reached at jdpmap@verizon.net

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