Egypt: the fourth largest plastic producer starts showing efforts to spread the use of bioplastic material. In conversation with researcher, Amal Elhussieny
Leading African country in plastic pollution
As reported by the World Wide Fund for Nature, the North African country, Egypt, is said to be the fourth largest plastic good producer in the world and number one in the Arab world with 570,000 tons of plastic waste ending up in its waters each year. This figure is predicted to quadruple by the year 2050 if not taken seriously.
In efforts to counteract the plastic crisis that the country faces, a research team overseen by The Nile University in Egypt and Nottingham University England extensively studied how using shrimp and crab (crustacean shells) skin shells can act as the basis of an eccentric environmental experiment to formulate biodegradable plastic. The research was funded by Newton Mosharafa, entitled Fabrication and characterization of innovative biopolymer nanocomposites films for degradable food bags and active packaging. One of the researchers that took part in the project, Amal Elhussieny, walks us through the details of the experiment in its entirety.
Egypt accounts for a plastic waste mismanagement of 42.5%, being the seventh largest exporter in the world. This is far more than the second largest in the region, Turkey, with a plastic waste mismanagement of 18.9%. Elhusseiny explains that «over the last two hundred years, the world has become dependent on synthetic plastics, from industrial applications to consumer use. Plastics are among the prime products in many different applications, where huge masses are used. The most important feature of plastics can be it’s flexibility, abundance, and durability of the raw material; however, this feature comes with a side effect. Scientists claim that every piece of synthetic plastics that has ever been made is still floating somewhere in oceans or lying down in some open areas around the world».
The country’s economy is heavily dependent on tourism, maritime trade and fishery sectors, all of which are primarily affected by plastic pollution. «Researchers have been looking for more environmentally friendly methods to battle our dependence on plastics. However, most of these alternatives are still not that competitive with synthetic plastics, which is why they are trying to limit the use of plastics instead. Actions that the European Union has taken to reduce the dependence on plastic bags for instance has been relatively successful, while the global average consumption of plastic bags is 513 bags per person per year, the average in the European Union is now eighty, going down to around twenty in certain countries. The Egyptian plastic factories produce a total of 1,000,000 tons of plastic bags and packaging per year».
The ecological and human crisis: seabirds and marine species vulnerability to the waste
A study, conducted by the Egyptian Ministry of Environment, revealed that seabirds and many marine species are vulnerable to the waste, creating both an ecological and human crisis. The fish that eat harmful plastics are consumed by humans and as the researcher puts it herself, «a great number of contaminations are being produced annually entering the food chain which causes detrimental side effects to man-kind».
«The country’s fisheries produce a total ranging between 5,500 tons and 10,000 tons of shrimp per annum, although the numbers may vary from year to year the numbers are expected to be closer to the highest records. The researcher goes on further by explaining that «the most logical assessment is about 9000 tons, out of which 7500 tons are expected to be derived from a place called Izbet El-Borg, near Demiatta alone. Shrimp shells account for 2,500 tons in Izbet El Borg, representing thirty-three percent of the fished-out shrimp in total. In addition, Egypt imports about 10,000 to 15,000 tons of shrimp yearly. However, only 3500 tons are whole shrimp while the rest are peeled before undergoing the process of importation. The report shows that about 1,600 tons are imported through Demiatta and 1,100 through Alexandria. Another 900 tons of shrimp shells can be derived from these imported resources. The total number is 3,400 tons, which represents a global net worth of 340,000 USD annually if not processed».
Repercussions of a plastic saturated world
The rise of the pandemic has brought dramatic increases in the proliferation of single-use plastic, the main component in masks, gloves, hand sanitizer bottles, test kits, takeout containers, delivery packaging and other items. According to a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) report, «one percent of masks disposed of incorrectly would mean ten million masks polluting the environment each month».
Not to mention other environmental side effects caused by our insistent need to consume single-use plastics has led to an increase in temperatures, sea level rise, melting of glaciers and negative effects on human health and agriculture. As a result, it is favored to adopt the utilization of eco-friendly materials like bio-based materials that include natural fibers and bio-based adhesives. This poses to be more attractive to a regular everyday consumer because of its several advantages like biodegradability, low toxicity, reusability and recyclability; becoming more sustainable.
With the creation of compostable biodegradable plastic, the bags are able to degrade into natural materials that mix harmlessly with the ground’s soil. Depending on its organic percentage, some bioplastics will break down at a different rate than others. «They originate from renewable biomass or organic sources from agricultural or microbial materials, such as vegetable oils and fats, and maize starch. There are continuous efforts to spread the use of bioplastic materials for various manufacturing purposes; due to their biodegradability, low carbon emissions, low cost, and non-petroleum-based sources».
Chitosan: A solution to the crisis
Chitosan, an inexpensive and commonly-found ingredient found abundantly in shrimp, is used widely in numerous applications such as pharmaceutical, agricultural and water treatment industries. Chitosan is originally derived from chitin; the second most abundant polymer in nature right after cellulose. Chitin, being found in crustacean shells like shrimp, crab and even insects as well as in some mushroom envelopes, green algae cell walls and yeast, makes it an ideal ingredient to replace non-degradable plastic bags that are materialized from polyethylene; a petroleum-based non-renewable source that would need around one thousand years to decompose. The project’s aims to alleviate Egyptian plastic waste and reduce plastic pollution.
The promising material comes short in some aspects: the bio-based material is limited in performance due to its poor mechanical and physical properties. Elhussieny confesses: «The challenge was working on how to enhance the performance of chitosan films to compete with synthetic plastic bags at low costs. Therefore, a natural fiber, such as cellulose fibers, were used as reinforcing fillers in chitosan films. Cellulose is the most abundant biopolymer, existing in wood, cotton and rice straw. Cellulose fibers are characterized by their low cost, availability, renewability, low density, high aspect ratio, low thermal expansion and water-insolubility. Consideration has been paid to cellulose nanofibers from horticultural harvests deposits because of their abundant sums everywhere throughout the world and yearly sustainability particularly for nations that do not have woodlands».
Several initiatives have been introduced by the Egyptian civil society to fight plastic pollution. The most prominent joined efforts in July and established the coalition, Egypt Ban Plastic, whose main purpose is to support a ban on single-use plastic bags in Egypt. «During the last few years, people all over the world have felt the detriments of the overall planet’s temperature rise, not to mention some of the forest fires that have happened and serious diseases arising; all being the cause of pollution that has been primarily caused from the many petroleum-based materials we, as humans, consume which is all the more reason for us to increases awareness on such matters».
A plastic free future
A bag derived from shellfish waste not only deals with food waste, but also produces a biodegradable product. This is much preferred to the overuse of plastic bags which causes numerous detrimental effects to the environment. It is uncertain when Egypt will be finally ridden itself of single-use plastic products but some manufacturers have commenced with replacing the traditional industry and opting for more eco-friendly approaches. The country’s ministry recently signed a three-year project with Japan’s International Cooperation Industry to promote circular economy practices in the single-use plastic cycles; a project that will be funded by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization at a cost of three million dollars.
Research assistant at the Center of Nanoscience and Technology (CNT), Nile University. She achieved her Master’s degree in Nanoscience and Technology in the year 2018. The research that Elhussieny joined was in collaboration with Nottingham University, United Kingdom titled ‘Fabrication and characterization of innovative biopolymer nanocomposites films for degradable food bags and active package’.