“The new bags are stronger and more durable than existing plastic bags and decompose faster,” Hwang said during a recent interview with The Korea Times.
The new invention is expected to contribute to combat climate change.
Existing plastic products are made of petroleum and coal, fossil fuel, blamed as contributing factors to climate change, are said to take centuries to decompose.
“Climate change requires us to go fossil fuel free. Plastic is all about fossil fuel and the solution is bioplastic. I am happy to make a contribution.”
Hwang’s new plastic takes six months to decompose completely.
Beside greenhouse gas emission, plastic poses a danger because it ends up in oceans, interrupting marine ecosystems and affecting people who eat seafood.
Korea is particularly at risk as its oceans are reportedly polluted with micro-plastics from Korea and China ― China is the No.1 plastic waste producer in the world and its Yangtze River spews out the biggest amount of micro-plastic, among other rivers, into the ocean.
The researcher said he is worried enough about plastic’s effects on health and stopped eating shellfish from the Yellow Sea.
“I do this as a precaution. Studies have yet to prove negative effects of plastic on human body, but my gut feeling says it’s good to stay away from shells even now.”
Born about a century ago, plastic has transformed human lives. The usage of plastic skyrocketed after the World War II as companies began commercializing plastic products.
The danger of plastic waste in the ocean surfaced in 1997 when sailor Charles Jr. Moore found a patch of garbage in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and western coast of the U.S.
According to researchers, the size of the garbage patch is equivalent to that of the state of Texas.
This isn’t Hwang’s only invention. In June, Hwang and his team also invented plastic using corn with a strong heat-resistance property, good to be used to make baby milk bottles and others.
Other scientists in the world invented bioplastic but they unsuccessfully commercialize it because it’s too expensive. Hwang said policy change would be key for bioplastic products to find consumers.
“If the government put strict regulations on plastic bags, cups and straws, it would open a new market for more bio plastic products. When there will be more bioplastic products made by companies, more people will buy them.”
The government placed regulations on plastic bags and cups in supermarkets and coffee shops after the waste crisis last year, but received criticism for poor implementation.
Hwang has been doing bioplastic research for 15 years. “I didn’t have special motivation when I started my career. Environmental issues were big when I was in school and I was thinking about what I could do to make a contribution.”
The researcher acknowledged plastic is not necessarily a bad thing.
“It was invented to improve lives of people and without them, life would be very tough. I would say plastic was a new civilization. If we have to live without plastic now, it would be like going back to times before the Joseon Dynasty,” he said.
The issue now is environmental damage and human health risk calls on people to take an action.
Does he do anything special to reduce plastic usage?
He said he doesn’t do anything extraordinary, except sorting out plastic waste well at home.
“Because I know what plastics are made of, I can sort out plastic waste better than anyone,” and he teaches his two daughters to do the same.
Published on koreatimes.co.kr