Biodegradable plastics are those that can be completely degraded in landfills, composters or sewage treatment plants by the action of naturally occurring micro-organisms. Truly biodegradable plastics leave no toxic, visible or distinguishable residues following degradation. Their biodegradability contrasts sharply with most petroleum-based plastics, which are essentially indestructible in a biological context. Because of the ubiquitous use of petroleum-based plastics, their persistence in the environment and their fossil-fuel derivation, alternatives to these traditional plastics are being explored. Issues surrounding waste management of traditional and biodegradable polymers are discussed in the context of reducing environmental pressures and carbon footprints. The main thrust of the present review addresses the development of plant-based biodegradable polymers. Plants naturally produce numerous polymers, including rubber, starch, cellulose and storage proteins, all of which have been exploited for biodegradable plastic production. Bacterial bioreactors fed with renewable resources from plants – so-called ‘white biotechnology’ – have also been successful in producing biodegradable polymers. In addition to these methods of exploiting plant materials for biodegradable polymer production, the present review also addresses the advances in synthesizing novel polymers within transgenic plants, especially those in the polyhydroxyalkanoate class. Although there is a stigma associated with transgenic plants, especially food crops, plant-based biodegradable polymers, produced as value-added co-products, or, from marginal land (non-food), crops such as switchgrass (Panicum virgatum L.), have the potential to become viable alternatives to petroleum-based plastics and an environmentally benign and carbon-neutral source of polymers.

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