Science

The future of plastic?

Waste bags made by bioplastics and other biode...

Waste bags made by bioplastics and other biodegrable Plastics (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The popular “green” movement has increased the interest in research and development of bioplastics. Bioplastics are made from renewable resources. Some plastics are compostable such as polylactic acid (PLA), polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) and starch-based blends. These plastics are becoming prevalent in the food service sectors and consumer packaging.
Several renewable chemical companies are targeting the $1.3 trillion global polymers market with chemical building blocks such as succinic acid, acrylic acid, levulinic acid, sorbitol, ethylene, ethyleneglycol (EG), butanediol (BDO), adipic acid (ADA), furan 2,5 dicarboxylic acid, propanediol, and glycerin. According to Jim Lunt, managing director of a US consulting firm, there are several properties for durable plastics that cannot be met by compostables. Jim Lunt continues to say, “There is increasing demand for bio-based, semi-durable and durable products for household goods that is driving increasing activities in making the building blocks for existing plastics and some new materials from renewable resources, Braskem’s sugar based polyethylene is just the first step. If oil prices stabilize around $90/bbl., which is where people believe [they] should be, then all these technologies for bioplastics have potential.” (De Guzman, 2010).

Plastic Ocean

Plastic Ocean (Photo credit: Kevin Krejci)

Conventional oil-based plastics remain cheaper for the time being, but bioplastics will be applied in more and more sectors and industries over the course of the next few years. The head of European Bioplastics, Kristy-Barbra Lange, explains, “Huge potential lies within the fields of consumer electronics and automotive. If certain challenges are met- such as availability of material- prices of bioplastic products will presumably adjust to a comparable level with conventional plastics.” A Brazilian company, Braskem, has already committed to make products for Proctor & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, and the Japanese cosmetics company, shiseido. Proctor & Gamble will use the green PE in a pilot project for its brands, Pantene Pro-V, Cover Girl and Max Factor. The need for lower cost petrochemical-based polymers alternatives has become the focal point for the development of renewable-based monomer building blocks. While the green factor is an added bonus, renewable-based chemicals, especially plastics, must be cost-competitive or even priced lower than traditional plastics in order to survive in the market. Debra Darby notes, “While we find that bioplastic costs remain the biggest challenge facing brand owners, in some cases, brands can still absorb the cost increase as part of a program to increase appeal of their products.”  (De Guzman, 2010).
The apparent benefit of switching to bioplastics is well accepted but now the industry is faced with the challenge to balance the cost of using them versus using traditional plastics. As research and development continues in this emerging field hopefully scientists can discover how to make production more cost effective so more companies will be inclined to switch to “green” packaging for their products. The future impact our society will have on the environment hinges on the ability to find solutions to the pollution from the packaging on the endless amount of products consumed.

References

De Guzman, D.. (2010, October). Bioplastics R&D intensifies. ICIS Chemical Business, 278(14), 28-29. Retrieved March 25, 2011, from ABI/INFORM Global. (Document ID: 2179198001).

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