A new low-temperature multi-phase process for upgrading lignin bio-oil to hydrocarbons could help expand use of the lignin, which is now largely a waste product left over from the productions of cellulose and bioethanol from trees and other woody plants.

It’s hard not to do so because these minute particles — and the even smaller nanoplastics — are everywhere — in food, water, household products, infants’ bottles and mainly from plastic litter that’s breaking down.

The effect on humans’ health is not yet known, according to articles in the National Institutes of Health’s National Centre for Biotechnology, ScienceDaily and others. Scientists have stressed the need for more research.

Now a biotechnology company in Johannesburg, Eco Invader Solutions, has found a way to help deal with plastic pollution by inventing a bioplastic developed from sawdust and nanotechnology.

The Dissolv Plastic products, yet to be commercialised, are expected to take between three days to a month to biodegrade in water. It is likely to take up to 61 days to break down on land and faster in an industrial composting facility.

Tshepo Mangoele, the owner of Eco Invader Solutions and a chemical engineer, says the bioplastic is designed to dissolve in water within 36 to 72 hours, depending on the product — straws, cutlery or packaging.

“We take sawdust to extract the glue that holds it together, called lignin, as tiny particles on a nanoscale. We also take the fibres from the sawdust as tiny particles, and we mix this with starch blends from cassava to produce a bioplastic.”

Mangoele developed Dissolv Plastic after two years of experimenting with waste biomass to manufacture different products.

Dr Yusuf Patel, a medical doctor, said it was exciting that a new form of bioplastic has been invented to reduce the risks to humans from microplastics found in fish and water.

The biggest culprits are plastic cutlery, earbuds, straws and polystyrene food containers.

“The people who must be more careful are new moms because they transfer these microplastic through breast-feeding. One of the reasons we ask them to avoid fish is because of what fish carries from the sea, and you can imagine how many microplastics a fish ingests in a year.”

But it is not all terrible plastic news. Plastics SA said in its latest report that South Africa is a leader in fighting plastic pollution. It recycles 67% of plastic bottles produced, which has saved 246 000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emission, the equivalent of greenhouse gases produced by 51 200 vehicles.

Mangoele, who has also been shortlisted for the 2021 Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation for his bioplastic, said he was ready to see the company’s work make a difference in the world.

“In the initial stages, we’ll be focusing on replacing single-use plastics in the food packaging industry, and we will start by packaging straws, cutlery and films for fruits and vegetables. We’ll then tap into other markets in the pharmaceuticals industry,” he said. “The first problem surrounding plastics and the effects they have on our planet and health is microplastic ingestion.”

The use of plant material to extract nano lignin and other nanomaterials that are cross-linked to make this bioplastic means it can only dissolve into organic material, which is safer for people’s lives, he said.

Not everyone is convinced that bioplastic is the solution. A study published in the journal Environment International, found that bioplastics have benefits but “products based on cellulose and starch contained the most chemicals and also triggered stronger toxic reactions under laboratory conditions”.