As we’ve discussed many times here and in our sister publications, more cities, states, and countries are banning or restricting single-use plastic items—bags, straws, eating utensils, even plastic water bottles. Those efforts, intended to reduce plastic waste in waterways and landfills, are gaining momentum, but they beg the question “What are we going to use instead?”
Although many alternatives have been proposed—especially going back to good old multi-use items like bamboo or even stainless steel drinking straws, sturdy fabric tote bags, and so on—it’s tough to imagine giving up the strong, flexible, and durable qualities of plastic. Scientists are closing in on a possible solution, although the feasibility of the material in question is a source of debate within the community that’s developing it.
You’ve seen the material before and have likely been in contact with it many times when you least wanted to be: the spider web. As Gregory Holland, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry, notes in this article, “Spider silk is the benchmark. It’s better than all the manmade materials we have…. In terms of a combination of strength and toughness, spider silk is the king.”
Spiders have been around for at least 380 million years, spinning their webs millions of years before the dinosaurs existed and before the plants that eventually turned into our fossil fuels—and our plastics—grew and flourished and died. Spider silk, as the article notes, consists mainly of protein and saltwater and is completely biodegradable. If we could replicate it, says Holland, we’d “never need plastic again.” And after decades of work scientists have managed to sequence the genes involved and to replicate the substance using various media—goat’s milk, for example. The actual process of spinning the stuff into thin strands has been elusive, but researchers are getting closer.
Randy Lewis, another researcher and one of Holland’s collaborators, is somewhat less optimistic about the possibilities for spider silk, even if the structural problems can be worked out. “I don’t see a way to compete with cheap plastic,” he says. Still, the work is continuing, and he’s working with a company to investigate the possibility of mass-producing the material. The article contains much more detail on the process, and an article on the research was published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.