Plastic waste takes 1,000 years to decompose fully. While recycling can help mitigate this, it’s still an unavoidable fact that every plastic takeaway container, milk bottle, straw and shopping bag currently in existence will still be here in some form in a millennium’s time (if the world lasts that long!)
The only real solution to our growing plastic crisis, which is blighting the environment and damaging fragile ecosystems, is to find alternative products to use. Hence the rise of reusable tote bags, metal straws and ‘bulk buy’ shops where you can bring reusable containers for your groceries.
Natalia Kuznetsova witnessed the damage plastic and mankind can do to the environment first-hand in her hometown of Krasnoyarsk in Siberia, Russia. Once judged the most beautiful city in Siberia by author Anton Chekhov, the city is now a major industrial base — particularly for the production of aluminum.
Determined to do her part to make the world a better, cleaner, eco-friendlier place, Natalia’s graduate thesis project at NUST MISIS involved the creation of a new biodegradable alternative to plastic made out of nettle fiber. This material — which is intended for use in packaging goods — has now been chosen for further development by one of Europe’s largest chemical hubs. With any luck, packages and products in shops near you might one day use her nettle fiber composite.
“I entered The National University of Science and Technology MISIS with an idea,” said Natalia. “From the theoretical side of the issue, it was clear that the nettle had a very strong fiber, much stronger than plastic, but I needed knowledge in material science to make sure that nettle plastic is really possible to produce.
“I knew about nettle fiber from childhood, because my grandmother was making threads out of it. So, I came up with the idea to make material from cheap raw materials available in Russia. It turned out that a cheap and replicable solution in the field of environmentally friendly materials is needed around the world.”
Natalia’s potentially world-changing invention sees her following in her father’s footsteps. A man she describes as a “real inventor”, her father worked on sensors to be used in space and had several patents.
However, it looked unlikely Natalia would embrace science in the same way when she initially built a successful career in management.
She told us: “Four years ago, I realized that I didn’t see the results of my career. I work hard, I am successful, but I don’t contribute to the development of the society around me. Then I looked around and realized that it was time to do something. I have been looking for ‘my project’ for a long time.”
Whether or not this project goes on to have the impact Natalia hopes it will, demand for alternatives to plastic is only going to increase. Particularly if shoppers make an effort to prioritize more sustainable and environmentally friendly products.
“Anyone can opt for eco-friendly products,” said Natalia. “If everyone adheres to the concept of conscious consumption, then producing items that are harmful to the environment won’t be profitable.”