It’s been 40 years since Mr. McGuire pulled Benjamin Braddock aside at his graduation party and said, “I just want to say one word to you. Just one word … Are you listening? … Plastics. There’s a great future in plastics.”
The future is still in plastics, but today Mr. McGuire would probably whisper, “bioplastics.” Based on increases in the price of crude oil, from which most plastics are derived, and consumer interest in just about anything “green,” the timing is ideal for a surge in this next generation of plastics. The European Bioplastics trade group predicted annual capacity would more than triple to 1.5 million tons by 2011. BCC Research forecasts the global market for biodegradable polymers to grow at a compound average growth rate of more than 17 percent through 2012. Even so, bioplastics will encompass a small niche of the overall plastic market, which is forecast to reach 500 billion pounds globally by 2010.
The Case for Bioplastics
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, only 6 percent of the plastic made in the United States was recycled in 2005. (That compares to a 50 percent recycling rate for paper, 37 percent for metals, and 22 percent for glass.) The plastic that lands in landfills has a life measured in thousands of years. Because most bioplastics are produced from agriculturally based renewable resources, under the right conditions they are biodegradable and compostable. The environment-friendly aspect of bio-based plastics appeals to companies looking for non-toxic containers that do not leach questionable chemicals, and that return to nature harmlessly after being disposed.
In addition, U.S. consumers get over 100 billion polyethylene carrier bags each year, but only 1.2 percent are recycled. Reusablebags.com estimates up to 1 trillion plastic bags are given out to consumers worldwide. It may be less expensive for retailers to hand out a paper or a polyethylene bag, but the environmental cost of bioplastic bags is less in terms of disposal. Consumers like the lightweight plastic bags and tend to find other uses for them before eventually throwing them away. Very few people bring them back to the store, which explains the minuscule recycling rate. Replacing polyethylene bags with bioplastic would be environmentally safer.
Banned in San Francisco-and Even in China
In San Francisco, petroleum-based bags are banned from supermarkets and drug stores. Other communities both in the U.S. and internationally have taken note and are either initiating fees or outright bans on petroleum-based plastic shopping bags. In January, China’s State Council banned the production of plastic bags, and beginning June 1, shops, supermarkets, and sales outlets nationwide are barred from handing them out.
In Ireland, government officials passed a tax on plastic shopping bags back in 2002. When customers started getting hit with the 33 cent fee on each and every plastic shopping bag, usage switched within a matter of weeks to reusable cloth bags or backpacks. Consumer behavior was changed and carrying a plastic shopping bag was akin to wearing fur or smoking in a crowded room; in a matter of a few years the behavior became socially unacceptable.
California has also banned chemicals called phthalates, found in soft plastics, from toys and baby products. Research into Bisphenol-A (BpA), used to make polycarbonates, shows that the compound mimics the human hormone estrogen and has been found to stimulate certain types of cancer, cause genetic damage, and leach out of plastic bottles into food and beverages.
Safer alternatives are starting to appear. Bioplastics are showing up in not only food packaging but in the automotive industry, medical devices, as hardware for the computer and electronics industry, on-the-go disposables (cups, plates, cutlery), and in toys.
Engineering Bioplastics for Expanded Uses
Typically thought of as coming from corn, bioplastics can and are being produced from other plant-based feedstocks such as potatoes, sugar beets, sugar cane, cassava, wheat, tapioca, and oils from soybeans. Companies have produced hybrid bioplastic products that incorporate a blend of plant starch with conventional polymers that help manufacturers reduce their dependence on nonrenewable resources and add features such as heat resistance or durability to their products but they cannot claim to be fully biodegradable or compostable.
As the technology continues to evolve, bioplastics will be engineered with the heat-resistance and strength needed for wider use. For example, Metabolix, a Massachusetts company, has developed a biodegradable polymer called Mirel made from bacteria, corn, and air that is able to withstand boiling water.
Innovative companies will be looking at their raw materials, have their finger on the pulse of what is driving consumer demand, and will be assessing the possible health risks of conventional plastics. They will also be keeping an eye out for new technologies or feedstock materials that will help solve some of the early challenges associated with bioplastics as they move from niche industry to the mainstream. Take Cereplast for example. The company now makes 15 grades of resins in its Compostables (TM) line, including a heat-resistant product CP-TH-6000 that can withstand heat up to 155p F. It also has a hybrid resin that is heat resistant up to 250p. To meet the demands for bioplastics Cereplast announced that it is building a new manufacturing facility in Indiana. It will have a half-billion pound capacity when fully operational in 2010.
Completing the Bio-Cycle
In the future, bioplastic products might be recycled into biodiesel. Researchers at Polytechnic University in New York have developed a fuel-latent plastic that is tougher and more durable than standard polyethylene. After use, the product can be placed in a simple converter where enzymes break it down into biodiesel suitable for home heating fuel. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) awarded the university’s researchers $2.34 million to advance the technology and transfer it to industry. The military has shown interest in their discovery for use on the battlefield where it could generate its own fuel and dispose of waste at the same time.
Any company planning to jump on the bioplastic bandwagon by either producing the resin or converting products to a plant-based alternative needs to stay abreast of what is happening in the biofuels arena, too. Bioplastics might be the darlings of the bio-based products industry right now, but it will compete for resources with biofuel producers for limited resources. That could result in higher feedstock prices, which could adversely impact the economics of both industries. In addition, while bioplastics are perceived as environmentally friendly, environmental groups are raising questions about diverting food crop resources to industrial uses. Certain feedstocks, such as corn, are more heavily dependent on agrochemicals and water than others and environmentalists are concerned excess or irresponsible use could impact our environment. They also worry that millions of acres of savannah and rainforest will be lost to make way for bio-crops. This complicated environmental equation could alter the dynamics dramatically.