When pine trees are harvested, it's obviously the wood that people are after – the needles are simply discarded. Before too long, however, that may change. Scientists from the UK's University of Bath have recently developed a renewable plastic, made with a chemical derived from pine needles.

The chemical in question is called pinene. It's a member of the terpene family, and it's what gives pine trees their distinctive smell. The polymer that has been made from the pinene could reportedly take the place of an existing petroleum-based rubbery polymer known as caprolactone.

Currently, caprolactone is added to biodegradable polyesters such as PLA (polylactic acid), to make them more flexible. While PLA is plant-based, however, caprolactone is made from crude oil. This means that the resulting composite isn't entirely renewable. When the pinene polymer is used instead, though, it is.

So far only a few grams of the plastic have been produced, although plans are in place to scale up the production process. Ultimately, it is hoped that the material could be used for applications such as food packaging, plastic bags and medical implants.

"We're not talking about recycling old Christmas trees into plastics, but rather using a waste product from industry that would otherwise be thrown away, and turning it into something useful," says PhD student Helena Quilter. "So if we can make a plastic from sustainable sources, it could make a big difference to the environment."

A paper on the research was recently published in the journal Polymer Chemistry.