The ‘future’ of plastic, shaped by this 23-year-old Cebuano scientist

Marymil M. Cabrera

WITH the goal of saving the planet, and protecting and preserving the environment, experts around the world come up with new and innovative ways to sustain it. From eco-shopping bags, stainless and paper straws, bamboo toothbrushes to eco-friendly buildings—the eco-friendly trend is becoming more in demand.

Cebuano young scientist Denxybel Montinola, a graduate of Bachelor in Science in Applied Physics of the University of San Carlos (USC) created a bio-plastic made of sustainable ingredients that are abundant in the country: Mango peels and seaweed.

The 23-year-old shared that his thesis was originally just for pure research. His goal was to provide fundamental knowledge on how pectin and carrageenan (a natural ingredient that comes from red seaweed) interact with each other in macroscopic level given a certain amount of force.

Denxybel also admitted that he was inspired by a viral video on Facebook in which a guy created bio-plastic out of seaweed, “and I thought to myself, ‘what if I will use my scientific tools and knowledge in Biophysics to recreate his invention and innovate it,’” he said. Then he conducted a testing based on his hypothesis.

“Theoretically, you can create a bio-plastic using almost any plant and skin of crustaceans (a very diverse group of invertebrates such as crabs, shrimp, lobsters) but getting the raw materials is the biggest challenge,” Denxybel shared. That’s why he searched for what was sustainable in the country and thought of the national fruit, mango.

According to UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, the Philippines ranks ninth in the top major mango producing countries in the world. “This vast mango supply also means large number of mango waste, especially the peel left in mango processing plants. For me, these wastes are potential natural resources that are underutilized,” said Denxybel. Same with carrageenan, the country is also among the world’s top biggest exporters and leading producers.

Denxybel shared how his childhood pastime of spreading a significant amount of glue on his hands and letting it dry for a minute or two, then peeling it off, helped him optimize the process in creating the bio-plastic.

“I vividly remember that I just sat in the middle of the laboratory looking for inspiration. Suddenly, I found glue on the table and immediately recalled what I did with the glue during my childhood. And it gave me an idea to do the same with my research and eureka! It worked!” he said.

“Bioplastic is more robust and flexible, and can mimic the mechanical strength of conventional plastic,” he explained. The added bonus is that the bio-plastic completely dissolves in water without producing any toxic residues. Hoping to eradicate plastic pollution in the near future, Denxybel showcased this innovation in the 2019 DOST-BPI Science Awards competition last August and got awarded. He also plans to continue his bio-plastic project in cooperation with Department of Agriculture and Department of Trade and Industry to make it “commercially ready” while doing his medical physics profession and research.

Denxybel, together with his friend, Clark Legaspi were the first two Carolinians who got accepted at the Institute of Biological Chemistry at the Academia Sinica—the most prestigious research institute in Taiwan, and produced two Nobel Prize laureates— along with their co-interns from Stanford University, UCLA, McGill and UP.