Reducing plastic usage is critical to a sustainable future but plastics are undoubtedly an integral part of our daily lives. A key solution to cutting plastic use can be found in bioplastics, which are not only made from renewable resources but also biodegrade significantly quicker than conventional plastics.  CAP has the story.

Conventional plastics are made from petroleum, but bioplastics are produced using converted biomass. You’ve probably seen or heard of cornstarch-based bioplastics. These have been around for over 20 years and continue to constitute a majority market share of biodegradable plastics.

A number of other bioplastics are also emerging, however. These offer new possibilities for sustainable plastic use and give us the ability to diversify the sources of biomass that we use.

Scientists, for example, are producing bioplastics from potatoes“”a natural candidate because of their high starch content. High levels of potato cultivation worldwide also mean an abundant supply that can help meet the world’s plastic demand.

Sugarcane is another crop being explored for its bioplastics potential. In fact, Proctor & Gamble, the Fortune 500 consumer goods company, recently announced that it would start marketing and producing sugarcane-derived bioplastics. The entrance of such a prominent company into the field is a boon for the potential future growth of the industry.

Perhaps the most promising””and intriguing””substitute for conventional plastic is mycelium, a compound derived from mushrooms. Mycelium produces a strong, durable polymer when introduced to certain types of organic material. Technically, mycelium isn’t “bioplastic,” but it has qualities that allow it to substitute for plastic in a number of different capacities.

For instance, “Mycobond,” a mushroom-derived material created by entrepreneurs Gavin McIntyre and Eben Bayer, is a green packaging alternative that requires 98 percent less energy to produce than conventional packaging materials. Mycobond is all-natural, self-assembling, biodegradable, and can be most commonly used as a substitute for packing materials, which are some of the most egregious sources of waste.

The sources of bioplastics are diverse, but the benefits are similar. Bioplastics require less energy to produce than conventional plastics, and they are made with renewable biomass. Conventional plastics also accumulate in landfills and take thousands of years to biodegrade while many bioplastics can and should be composted, allowing them to biodegrade much more quickly. The result is less landfill usage, less pollution, and less waste accumulation in vulnerable ecosystems as well as a greatly reduced carbon footprint.

Consider using bioplastics instead of conventional plastics if you need disposable or short-use plastic items such as bags, plasticware, or packaging material. Chances are you’ll be able to find compostable versions of those products at your own local grocery store or supermarket.

One important tip to remember, though: While all bioplastics are created from converted biomass, not all bioplastics are compostable. If you’re looking to really cut down the ecological impact of your plastic use make sure to use compostable bioplastics. Ultimately, they’re easy to find, similar in price, indistinguishable from their conventional plastic counterparts, and much less damaging to our planet.

— A CAP cross-post.

19 Responses to Bioplastic-tastic

  1. Tried compostable versions of trash bags. So weak they were useless :-(

  2. Dr.A.Jagadeesh says:

    Good Article.

    Bioplastics is an emerging field. Here is more information on this.

    Bioplastics or organic plastics are a form of plastics derived from renewable biomass sources, such as vegetable oil, corn starch, pea starch, or microbiota, rather than fossil-fuel plastics which are derived from petroleum. Some, but not all, bioplastics are designed to biodegrade.
    Biodegradable bioplastics are used for disposable items, such as packaging and catering items (crockery, cutlery, pots, bowls, straws). Biodegradable bioplastics are also often used for organic waste bags, where they can be composted together with the food or green waste. Some trays and containers for fruit, vegetables, eggs and meat, bottles for soft drinks and dairy products and blister foils for fruit and vegetables are manufactured from bioplastics.
    Nondisposable applications include mobile phone casings, carpet fibres, and car interiors, fuel line and plastic pipe applications, and new electroactive bioplastics are being developed that can be used to carry electrical current. In these areas, the goal is not biodegradability, but to create items from sustainable resources.
    Plastic types
    Starch based plastics
    Constituting about 50 percent of the bioplastics market, thermoplastic starch, such as Plastarch Material, currently represents the most important and widely used bioplastic. Pure starch possesses the characteristic of being able to absorb humidity, and is thus being used for the production of drug capsules in the pharmaceutical sector. Flexibiliser and plasticiser such as sorbitol and glycerine are added so the starch can also be processed thermo-plastically. By varying the amounts of these additives, the characteristic of the material can be tailored to specific needs (also called “thermo-plastical starch”). Simple starch plastic can be made at home shown by this method.
    Cellulose based plastics
    Cellulose bioplastics are mainly the cellulose esters (cellulose acetate, nitrocellulose…) and their derivatives (celluloid…).
    Some aliphatic polyesters
    The aliphatic biopolyesters are mainly polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) like the poly-3-hydroxybutyrate (PHB), polyhydroxyvalerate (PHV) and polyhydroxyhexanoate PHH.
    Polylactic acid (PLA) plastics
    Polylactic acid (PLA) is a transparent plastic produced from cane sugar or glucose. It not only resembles conventional petrochemical mass plastics (like PE or PP) in its characteristics, but it can also be processed easily on standard equipment that already exists for the production of conventional plastics. PLA and PLA blends generally come in the form of granulates with various properties, and are used in the plastic processing industry for the production of foil, moulds, tins, cups and bottles.
    Poly-3-hydroxybutyrate (PHB)
    The biopolymer poly-3-hydroxybutyrate (PHB) is a polyester produced by certain bacteria processing glucose or starch. Its characteristics are similar to those of the petroplastic polypropylene. The South American sugar industry, for example, has decided to expand PHB production to an industrial scale. PHB is distinguished primarily by its physical characteristics. It produces transparent film at a melting point higher than 130 degrees Celsius, and is biodegradable without residue.
    Polyamide 11 (PA 11)
    PA 11 is a biopolymer derived from natural oil. It is also known under the tradename Rilsan B, commercialized by Arkema. PA 11 belongs to the technical polymers family and is not biodegradable. Its properties are similar to those of PA 12, although emissions of greenhouse gases and consumption of nonrenewable resources are reduced during its production. Its thermal resistance is also superior to that of PA 12. It is used in high-performance applications like automotive fuel lines, pneumatic airbrake tubing, electrical cable antitermite sheathing, flexible oil and gas pipes, control fluid umbilicals, sports shoes, electronic device components, and catheters.
    Bio-derived polyethylene
    The basic building block (monomer) of polyethylene is ethylene. This is just one small chemical step from ethanol, which can be produced by fermentation of agricultural feedstocks such as sugar cane or corn. Bio-derived polyethylene is chemically and physically identical to traditional polyethylene – it does not biodegrade but can be recycled. It can also considerably reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Brazilian chemicals group Braskem claims that using its route from sugar cane ethanol to produce one tonne of polyethylene captures (removes from the environment) 2.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide while the traditional petrochemical route results in emissions of close to 3.5 tonnes.
    Braskem plans to introduce commercial quantities of its first bio-derived high density polyethylene, used in a packaging such as bottles and tubs, in 2010 and has developed a technology to produce bio-derived butene, required to make the linear low density polethylene types used in film production.
    Genetically modified bioplastics
    Genetic modification (GM) is also a challenge for the bioplastics industry. None of the currently available bioplastics – which can be considered first generation products – require the use of GM crops, although GM corn is the standard feedstock.
    Looking further ahead, some of the second generation bioplastics manufacturing technologies under development employ the “plant factory” model, using genetically modified crops or genetically modified bacteria to optimise efficiency(Source:Wikipedia).
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

  3. Mike says:

    If we price GHG emissions demand for oil for energy would go down, making it cheaper to use oil for plastics.

  4. Bill W says:

    Won’t we eventually run into the same issue here that we did with corn ethanol, i.e., that of using a food source for an alternative purpose, thus reducing food supplies and driving up food prices?

  5. Scott says:

    Is there any information yet on bioplastics as potential endocrine disrupters ?

  6. Zetetic says:

    @ Bill W:
    Good point, but I according to one of the articles they want to make it commercially available as a “kit” that small business and even individuals can use to grow their own “Mycobond”. Also they are using organic waste as the feed stock for the mushrooms (the TED video in one of the linked articles shows the process). If true I don’t think that should be a problem for the agricultural food supply.
    Innovative New Organic Packing Material From Mushrooms

    @ Scott W:
    Good question.

  7. Bill W. asks the question that I was going to ask.
    How much petroleum do we now use for plastic? How much food would it take to replace this petroleum?
    If the quantity is the same order of magnitude for plastic as for ethanol, then it will have a similar impact on world food prices.

  8. Prokaryotes says:

    Japanese Researchers Invent Elastic Water

    Elastic water, a new substance invented by researchers at Tokyo University, is a jelly-like substance made up of 95% water along with two grams of clay and a small amount of organic materials. As is, the all-natural substance is perfect for medical procedures, because it’s made of water, poses no harm to people and is perfect for mending tissue. And, if the research team can increase the density of this exciting new substance, it could be used in place of our current oil based plastics for a host of other things.

  9. Prokaryotes says:

    Hemp Plastic: Not Just For Sandals Anymore

    With oil prices climbing all over the world, plastics manufacturers are looking to alternative sources of raw material that don’t rely on synthetics. British company Hemp Plastics thinks it’s on the right track to producing a 100% hemp feedstock plastic. It’s current formulation, which uses hemp fiber filler bound with recycled plastic (a petrochemical component which they to replace with a hemp starch polymer) is lightweight, super tough, and even with its oil-based binder, uses far less petroleum than a comparable piece of polycarbonate…

  10. Prokaryotes says:

    Plastic to oil fantastic
    Due to exceptional circumstances, we are republishing the present story about an exceptional innovation. Over a year after it was originally published, this video brief about the invention of a plastic-to-oil converting machine recently got a viral boost and exceeded 115,000 views on YouTube.

    This is evidence that concern over “the plastic problem” is certainly not going away, despite encouraging bans on and decreases in the use of plastic shopping bags.

  11. Prokaryotes says:

    2nd march 2011

    As Oil Prices Rise, Japanese Plastic to Oil ‘Blest’ Machine Could be Answer
    Recently developed Japanese-made ‘Blest’ plastic to oil machine could offset the rise in oil prices

  12. Rice Dog says:

    Why not go back to glass for beverages and water? A deposit was really a deposit. When consumers have a “skin” in the game we tend to attach stewardship and maintenance. We don’t seem to have a problem with aluminum cans littering the environment because there is value attached.

  13. JohninOregon says:

    Bioplastics are actually an old idea with a new lease on life. They emerged in the 19th century and were largely superseded by petrochemical alternatives in the postwar era. A lot of the early stuff was made of cellulose. Anyone of a certain age remembers cellophane packaging (still around to a limited extent), and we all know about celluloid motion picture film. Celluloid had many other uses. Here is a partial list, included in “Creative Chemistry,” a popular science book published in 1919: “handles for canes, umbrellas, mirrors and brushes, knives, whistles, toys, blown animals, card cases, chains, charms, brooches, badges, bracelets, rings, book bindings, hairpins, campaign buttons, cuff and collar buttons, cuffs, collars and dickies, tags, cups, knobs, paper cutters, picture frames, chessmen, pool balls, ping pong balls, piano keys, dental plates, masks for disfigured faces, penholders, eyeglass frames, goggles, [and] playing cards….”

  14. John Kazer says:

    Some further info/areas for thought regarding bioplastics:

    – We only use a few percent of our mineral oil for plastics, so the scale of substitution is not the same as with fuel. However the range of uses to which we put plastic might challenge bioplastics for a while yet.

    – I would challenge the assumption that bioplastics require less energy to make than fossil plastic – when the fertiliser is included the equation changes greatly.

    – Presumably the fertiliser issue exists for fungi too as you need to produce plant matter to feed them…

    – Mineral plastic can/should be highly recyclable – this is not necessarily the case for bioplastic

    – If bioplastic degrades into methane then this is disasterous – being inert in landfill might actually be a good thing in comparison…

  15. Zetetic says:

    @ John Kazer:
    You make some good points but as I had already mentioned earlier, the links above lead to information that for the mycoprotein what they are using is organic waste material from other processes (discarded seed husks, for example). Is short the trash that would normally be thrown away is they they are using for the food stock for the fungus to produce the packing material. Therefore no fertilizer is needed for the use of “Mycobond”.

    For the other types of bioplastics though fertilizer can be an issue, although agroecology may provide a way around such issues.
    How can we feed the world and still save the planet?
    Time will tell for that issue I suppose.

    As far as the bioplastics decay properties that only thing I could find is that they are compost-able. Nothing about methane, but even if so that can be harvested for bio-gas. Some of the concern with using oil based plastics are the toxic chemicals involved in manufacturing and the long life span in the environment if they are just thrown away (or blow away in the case of plastic bags and Styrofoam cups), this has become a big problem for marine life (as well as other wildlife). Bioplastics and “Mycobond” are ways to address the “pollution by plastic” problem.

  16. Ruben says:

    Ah bioplastics. Thank goodness I don’t need to change anything. The future will be better and shinier after all!!

  17. John Kazer says:

    I’m reminded of the leafcutter ants that grow fungi for food on plant matter they collect – it’s amazing that the energetics make if more efficient for them to do that rather than just eating the leaves themselves, but it appears to be the case.

    If we had a proper system for assessing the end of life of products during design/manufacture and purchase decision then we would have a much better chance of a sensible recycling system – for plastic of whatever origin.

  18. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    All these technologies are promising, but they all run into the brick wall of over-consumption. Using corn or potatoes for bio-plastic robs someone of a meal, or destroys pristine environments for expanded cultivation. We need an economic system that promotes wealth equality, sufficiency in consumption, and a steady-state economy, without growth, that conserves and restores and replenishes the living world. We also must promote the demographic transformation, end population growth, reduce the planetary population slowly and humanely, and outlaw elite conspicuous over-consumption.

  19. Zetetic says:

    @ John Kazer:
    Yes I think that’s a very good comparison to the leaf cutters. (As an aside I’ve always found social insects such as ants to be fascinating in their range of complex behaviors.) I had a similar thought watching the fungus grow in the TED video linked in one of the articles. Of course the main advantage in this case is that humans are using what they would normally throw away, although the product isn’t directly edible. Now if they could only turn it into a pizza topping! ;)

    I agree with the need for a better consideration of “end-of-life” for recycling. Fortunately this seems to be a step in that direction, as far as packing/shipping goes. I just hope that it catches on.