Would You Like Plants or Plastic?

Plastic is everywhere, but replacing it with renewable plant-based material could mean big benefits for our environmental footprint.

 |  Transcript [PDF]

Nowadays, everything is either made out of plastic, wrapped in plastic, or both. In our disposable world this results in an enormous amount of plastics in our landfills and oceans, and because these materials don’t breakdown, the problem is getting worse and worse every year. Many countries have started to implement a ban or a tax on plastic shopping bags in hopes of reducing our plastic waste, but what if we could stop using plastics altogether?

Emma Master, associate professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry at the University of Toronto, is looking for alternatives in plants.

“We’d really like to make new materials from what nature provides,” says Master. “We see this as an opportunity for important sectors in Canada, namely our forest sector; also our agricultural sectors. Many of those industries, of course, support small communities. So in addition to longer term environmental impacts, we sincerely hope we also help with the economic sustainability of smaller communities.”

By observing how microorganisms have evolved to utilize plant sources for carbon and for energy, Prof. Master’s group uses molecular techniques to isolate those activities that would allow us to make new materials from plant fibre. This emphasis on generating new products from renewable plant-based materials should reduce our environmental footprint, and in doing so, ensure a healthier environment for generations to come.

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As a graduate in microbiology and biochemistry, and now Associate Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry, Emma Master brings interdisciplinary perspectives and know-how to the discovery, design, and application of biocatalysts relevant to plant polysaccharide and biochemical engineering. Her research team comprises 15 graduate students and post-doctoral fellows with backgrounds in biochemistry, chemical engineering, and material science, working together to develop biotechnologies that create high-value bio-based products from renewable plant sources. She received a Faculty Research Leadership award in 2013, a Finnish Distinguished Fellowship in 2010, and an Early Researcher Award from MEDI in 2009. Emma Master is a theme leader in the NSERC Bioconversion Network, and NSERC Industry Biocatalysis Network; she also leads “FFABnet: The Functionalized Fibre and Biochemicals Network”.

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