As the world industrializes and demand for reliable medical treatment skyrockets in dense Indian and Chinese population centers, medical researchers are developing new biodegradable fibers and plastics that will greatly reduce accumulation in landfills as well as long-term ecological damage from conventional oil-based plastics (many of which will not biodegrade for thousands of years or longer). The lack of biodegradability has been a worldwide problem for decades, with waste processing and landfill accumulation taxing resources for municipalities worldwide.
New biodegradable medical plastics and fibers, however, have to meet special conditions. First, they must be safe enough to use in an environment where harmful bacteria can have devastating effects on a patient. Hospital-resistant bacteria is becoming an increasingly prevalent problem for hospitals in even developed nations, and contamination may extend patient recovery by several months, cause severe complications, or even kill. These hospital-resistant bacteria strains have developed as a result of bacterial populations in hospitals sharing resistances during incomplete cleaning and sterilization procedures. New biodegradable medical plastics must be able to stand up to harsh cleaning procedures, or at least facilitate the development of new cleaning procedures that result in operational viability.
Affordability is another concern. The processes for creating oil-based plastics are already well-established, with manufacturing infrastructures in place around the world. Economy of scale heavily favors the continuation of oil-based plastics despite environmental concerns (landfill accumulation and harsh chemicals during the production process). Medical researchers face the challenge of displacing a cheap, effective solution with burgeoning infrastructure and far less corporate funding.
Within the medical community, biodegradable plastics and fibers also must live up to their namesake: that is, possess enough biodegradability to drastically lower metropolitan medical waste. Medical researchers are developing multi-tiered systems that both lower waste generation and simultaneously create other products, such as new biofuels from algae. While new biodegradable plastics may meet international standards for biodegradable and compostable products, we must remember that there are often many conventional manufacturing processes still being utilized during their production.
For example, polylactic acid, which is currently one of the most common compostable plastics, requires a tremendous amount of corn to produce. In fact, one of the main criticisms levied at biodegradable plastics and fibers is that they deprive hungry nations of arable land and a supplementary food supply. Medical researchers have taken this into account as the next generation of biodegradable plastics passes through developmental stages. Many of these new plastics take advantage of the natural processes of algae, bacteria, and other microorganisms to avoid polluting arable land and reduce the amount of conventional manufacturing supplies needed to manage production.