30 April 2010

Bioplastic - an Introduction

From the clothes on your back, to the car you're driving and the groceries in its trunk, plastics are nearly ubiquitous. Plastics constitute a myriad of goods people consume and use each day. But the crude oil refined to produce traditional PET plastic is finite, and the toll plastics have taken on the world's oceans and environments is even larger than our consumption.

Plastics do not decompose, and are rarely recycled-when they are recycled plastic is not 100% renewable. Today, the price of a barrel of crude oil sits at just over $80 a barrel, but when the world economy fully recovers, the Energy Institute expects prices to jump to over $100 a barrel, and by 2030 figures that prices will continue to increase and reach $200-driving the cost of petrol-based plastic from 80% to 250% respectively.

But just as scientists reinvented manufacturing and packaging after the First and Second World Wars by learning how to produce durable plastic inexpensively, science has developed what might become an alternative to traditional plastics-the answer might be bioplastics.

Bioplastics are set to emerge as the world becomes increasingly conscious of the necessity of building green and sustainable economies.

They encompass a diverse set of materials and uses-however, Polylactic Acid bioplastics figure to be one of the most attractive alternatives to replace PET plastic in day-to-day use.

Currently, PLA is derived from plant sugars and starches-corn, maize, sugarcane, wheat, and beetroot. The starches can be fermented and processed to make the raw bioplastic material that has a similar feel and durability to PET plastic.

In the United States, corn figures to be the most common source for the new biomaterial. By contrast to PET, PLA is 100% recyclable, biodegradable and renewable. Today's technology can already produce PLA using half the energy and emitting 60% less CO2 than PET.

And already, PLA is capable of substituting PET in an array of consumer and industrial uses: soft films for food and biomedical equipment, hard packaging, tableware, upholstery, disposable garments, and awnings.

While PLA was initially deemed to expensive to produce on an industrial scale, technological breakthroughs have enabled bioplastics companies to produce PLA at a rate competitive to PET plastic. And, with the ever-fluctuating price of oil, PLA is expected to become cheaper to produce as technology and production develop are fuelled by demand. Industry forecasters predict that by 2020 the demand for PLA will increase by 40% from today's levels, with a 10% increase per annum, and the nature of PLA production all but guarantees a consistent price.

Yet, the industry faces several challenges. In order to become truly sustainable and renewable, the bioplastics industry must move beyond first generation bioplastics and onto second generation bioplastics based on plant cellulose.

If not, the bioplastics industry might expect a similar backlash that the biofuel industry faced as environmental and humanitarian concerns emerged.

Land conversion of forests to farmland causes an indirect release of CO2 by destroying carbon sinks. In addition, over fertilization adds NO2 to the atmosphere, a gas scientists deem to be up to 300x worse than CO2 for climate change.

All the while, changing land from food consumption to fuel or plastic consumption drives up the cost of food worldwide, causing starvation and malnutrition among the world's impoverished people.

Bioplastics also must be recycled separately from PET plastics in order to be properly biodegraded and fulfil the potential 100% renewability; this will create the challenge for us to adapt and reshape the way we recycle.

Yet, progress to meet these challenges is forging ahead. Since the Copenhagen Summit, climate change and sustainability have drawn unprecedented interest from major and minor countries and businesses-with the Cancun Summit approaching this December, climate change issues will become even more prominent.

The potential to emit 60% less CO2 into the atmosphere per kilogram of produce while using half of the energy will not go unnoticed by government or business.

While at the moment, the only certainty may be PET plastic is not sustainable, it is impossible to ignore the vast potential that PLA offers. And as producers undergo rapid expansion, PLA will become a force in the economy and environment sooner than one might expect and increase in years to come.

Author: Michael Good | Climate Action
Images: ginnerobot, tom chandler |Flickr

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