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Bioplastics are a form of plastics derived from plant sources such as hemp oil, soy bean oil and corn starch rather than traditional plastics which are derived from petroleum. This is regarded as a much more sustainable activity, as it relies considerably less on fossil fuel imports and produces less greenhouse emissions, producing between 0.8 and 3.2 tonnes of carbon dioxide less per tonne of bioplastics compared to the same weight in petroleum-based plastics. In addition, bioplastics are truly biodegradable, as opposed to what is traditionally referred to as "biodegradable plastic", which is derived from petroleum and mixed with heavy metals that eventually cause polyethylene to break down.
In many areas, the technology is still relatively new and currently not as cost competitive with petroleum-based plastics, although that is quickly changing, given the current price of oil. It is already seeing some widespread use in Europe, where it accounts for 60% of the biodegradable materials market and is found in products such as packaging materials. Japan has also been a pioneer in bioplastics, incorporating them into electronics and automobiles.
These days plastics are predominantly made from crude oil. However, the increasing hunger for energy worldwide and also political instability in the large oil exporting countries have led to a dramatic increase in the price of oil in recent years. A consistently low oil price, as was seen throughout the 90s, is not very likely in the future. In this context, renewable resources are becoming a more viable and promising alternative for the plastics industry.
COPA (Committee of Agricultural Organisation in the European Union) and COGEGA (General Committee for the Agricultural Cooperation in the European Union) have made an assessment of the potential of bioplastics in different sectors of the European economy:
Catering products: 450.000 t/a Organic waste bags: 100.000 t/a Biodegradable mulch foils: 130.000 t/a Biodegradable foils for diapers 80.000 t/a Diapers, 100% biodegradable: 240.000 t/a Foil packaging: 400.000 t/a Vegetable packaging: 400.000 t/a Tyre components: 200.000 t/a
Total 2.000.000 t/a
Because of their biological biodegradability, the use of bioplastics is especially popular in the packaging sector. The use of bioplastics for shopping bags is already very common. After their initial use they can be reused as bags for organic waste and then be composted. Trays and containers for fruit, vegetables, eggs and meat, bottles for soft drinks and dairy products and blister foils for fruit and vegetables are also already widely manufactured from bioplastics.
Catering products belong to the group of perishable plastics. Disposable crockery and cutlery, as well as pots and bowls, pack foils for hamburgers and straws are being dumped after a single use, together with food-leftovers, forming huge amounts of waste, particularly at big events. The use of bioplastics offers significant advantages not only in an ecological sense but also in an economical sense.
There is now a new generation of additive which can be used to biodegrade conventional plastic, called micro-biodegradable additive. This additive can be added to any conventional plastic product, such as PET water bottles, PET soda bottles, HDPE t-shirt (shopping) bags, polypropylene or polystyrene disposable cutlery, cups, straws, lids, etc., and EPS, of which Styrofoam is a well known brand. Microbiodegradable plastic acts by encouraging the activity of microorganisms in the soil, and unlike oxo-biodegradable additives, it doesn't require heat, light, UV light, or oxygen to cause biodegradation. It has been demonstrated in scientific research that various bacteria and fungi will biodegrade various plastics. Examples of these microorganisms are Pseudomonas, Sphingomonas, Xanthomonas, Sphingobacterium, Xylaria, and Trichoderma. Unlike starch based plastics, conventional plastics with microbiodegradable additive in it don't exacerbate the world food shortage, and conventional plastic is made of a byproduct of oil production, most of which would otherwise be wasted, light naphtha. Earth Nurture is the best known brand of this kind of plastic disposable products.
Starch based plastics
Constituting about 50 per cent of the bioplastics market, thermo-plastical starch 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 that 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").
Polylactide acid (PLA) plastics
Polylactide acid (PLA) is a transparent plastic made from natural resources. 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, bottles and other packaging.
The biopolymer poly-3-hydroxybutyrate (PHB) is a polyester produced from renewable raw materials. Its characteristics are similar to those of the petrochemical-produced plastic polypropylene. The production of PHB is currently booming. Companies worldwide are aiming to either begin production of PHB or to expand their current production capacity, which would most likely result in a price reduction to fewer than 5 Euros per kilogram. 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.
- In the early 1950's, Amylomaize (>50% starch content corn) was successfully bred and commercial bioplastics applications started to be explored.
- In 2004, NEC developed a flame retardant plastic, polylactic acid, without using toxic chemicals such as halogens and phosphorous compounds .
- In 2005, Fujitsu became one of the first technology company to make personal computer cases from bioplastics, which are featured in their FMV-BIBLO NB80K line.
- In 2005, PSM (plastarch material) makes the move from lab to commercial use as the first truly biodegradable and heat-resistant bioplastic.
- bioplastics24.com - Information portal: Bioplastics News, background information and bioplastics market directory
- PSM North America
- Agriculture and Agrifood Canada: Bioplastics page on the Canadian Government's website</br>
- Bioplastics.org: Bioplastic Plastic Resin Information</br>
- The European Bioplastics Association: Information on Bioplastics and Biodegradable Polymers, Market Information</br>
- German Agency for Renewable Resources (FNR)
- Trends in Japan: Article written December 2003</br>
- Corn Biopolymer
- Fortune.com: (subscription required to read entire article)</br>
- Design Insite
- Biodegradable Plastics made with Bio-Batch
- Sustainable Exhibition Design Wiki - Bio-based plastics - A fork of this page, intended to focus on recycling and environmental issues related to exhibition design. (Eg: Finding a substitute for Acrylic)