As a reminder, bioplastics are defined as either biodegradable, or containing bio-based content, or both. They're all produced as an alternative to petro-based plastics, to decrease carbon footprint and form a sustainable alternative. For example, Cereplast's algae-based bioplastics are divided into two different lines: the Sustainables resins combine a high bio-based content with the durability and endurance of traditional plastic. They're aimed at automotive, consumer electronics, and packaging applications. But the company's Compostables resins target single-use applications, such as food service-related products.
It's also important to remember that purposeful, managed composting and biodegrading -- in landfills or anywhere else -- are two different things and result in a big difference in the amount of carbon dioxide that's released. When not managed, it can take many years for a biodegradable material to finish biodegrading, during which time it releases considerable amounts of carbon dioxide and may also leave undesirable residues in the soil. In contrast, correctly managed composting happens a lot faster, captures more carbon dioxide, and leaves little or (preferably) no residues. BASF has a helpful FAQ on the subject.
BASF says it introduced these grades because of the growing interest in certified compostable plastics among packaging makers. According to a new study by market research firm IHS Chemical, both legislative efforts and consumer pressure are combining to increase demand for biodegradable plastics. The report predicts that demand will increase by almost 15 percent per year between 2012 and 2017 in Europe, North America, and Asia. Europe remains the largest regional consumer of biodegradable plastics, and is responsible for more than half of the total amount worldwide by weight. Although food serviceware and food packaging remain the highest-volume application category, medical uses for biodegradable plastics are increasing.
Thanks for such a comprehensive, informative article on bioplastics, Ann, and for staying on top of this fascinating and important space. I never knew what the differences were and it seems like there is quite a range. That said, I really like the direction BASF is heading with this compostabe and biodegradeable version of Ecovio. To think that all the plastic being used for food packaging could one day be bioplastic like this that can be reused and composted in an agricultural venue is promising, especially in a world where synthetic plastic has ruled for so many years and done such damage to the environment.
You're welcome, Elizabeth. Since there had been a lot of comments recently that indicated some readers were confused about the nature of bioplastics, I took the opportunity to clarify a few points again. BASF is a pioneer and leader in bioplastics, especially Ecovio compostable versions, and I( think they deserve kudos for this leadership, the R&D, and the productization/commercialization.
I'll definitely have to keep an eye on news from BASF. I think it's really great when a company takes such initiative to do something not only good for industry, but also for the environment. Responsible business practices are the future.
When researching the company last year, I discovered its commitment to sustainability goes back several years. I was also surprised that even my husband (in a very different field from this one) had heard of the company and its leadership in this area. Here's a link that will help: http://www.basf.com/group/corporate/en/content/sustainability/index
Thanks for the link, Ann. I will definitely take a look. I guess I shouldn't be surprised, as companies purely devoted to sustainability and environmental friendliness are popping up all the time know. But sounds like BASF was at the forefront.
Elizabeth, DuPont is another company that's been in the forefront of sustainability efforts, not just making sustainable plastics. I suggest you check out their website, too. http://www2.dupont.com/inclusive-innovations/en-us/gss/sustainability.html
Thanks for the info, Ann. I didn't know that about DuPont. I think for some reason I had a bit of a negative view of that company in my head, growing up so close to Delaware (near Philadelphia) where the company had such an ominous industrial presence. i always thought they were just another socially irresponsible chemical company. Good to know I'm wrong!
Elizabeth, I was also surprised, and pleased, to discover that most chemical companies have been addressing sustainability issues for several years now. Pressure from consumers had a lot to do with this.
Another fact I didn't know, Ann, but it makes sense. As consumers become more environmentally aware, it is just a no brainer that they want the companies providing the materials for a lot of products to do the same. Let's hope this starts to have a real positive impact.
I agree. Fortunately, consumer opinion already has made a big difference, and that's a large part of why companies have sustainability programs and we have second-generation biofuels and bioplastics, as well as the CAFE fuel efficiency standards. These changes actually began about 20 years ago, but have become more visible recently. The US has not exactly been at the leading edge.
Well it's good to see U.S. companies respond to pressure but a shame that they didn't change their ways beforehand. It's maddening to me how the U.S. can be ahead of the game in so many ways and behind on this important issue. Why is that, do you think? I don't know enough about it to say which countries are at the leading edge. Do you know what they are?
Sustainability is a big subject, so we need to separate it into relevant chunks, for example, a country's companies having corporate sustainability programs versus a country having regulations and concerted industry efforts toward making alternative materials and energy sources. On the second count, Japan and the EU are way ahead of the US. Regarding corporate sustainability programs, I don't know, but would make a reasonable guess that those two regions would also be ahead of us.
I was with Motorola Research in 2006 and a close peer commented that he was very concerned our retirement pension funding would be rapidly depleted as funds could be diverted to cleaning Chinese land-fills jammed with our plastic, metal and other non-RoHS materials. That guy championed an internal initiative to improve materials at Motorola, globally. Too bad we were all eliminated the following year due to Corporate Down-sizing.
That's an interesting story about Motorola Research, Jim. The overabundance of unrecycled plastic in landfills is not exactly a new story--there were forward-looking people worried about this back in the 1980s, but no one was really listening yet and it wasn't on most copanies' radar.
Thanks for that bit of history, JimT. So it sounds like internally there have been people inside companies trying to act environmentally friendly change for years, but then politics or downsizing (in this case) or other factors got in the way. It's good that consumer awareness and demand is bringing this issue to light again and forcing change. I hope it's not too late because I still fear those landfills will need to be cleaned--they are already jam-packed!
I agree, the article was very informative on the differences between the two bioplastics and I foresee them being widely used in the near future. Not out of popularity among the 'green' crowds but out of necessity due to the demand for oil and other dwindling resources. Easy oil is gone, is it not?
The thing to remember about petro-based oil, plentiful and easy or not, is that it not only causes new CO2 emissions when burned, as do biofuels, but does not first sequester new CO2 in the environment, as plant-based biofuels do before they become biofuels. In fact, it re-releases old carbon that had already been sequestered for a really, really long time. Growing more plants to temporarily sequester new carbon before then releasing it as fuel may not decrease environmental CO2 by a lot, but it sure stops the increase, and that's why biofuels are called carbon neutral. Alternative energy like solar is also called carbon neutral since it doesn't produce any carbon to start with.
No, really--your comment about it in another recent article on bioplastics made me realize that, even though I'd covered it in a feature last year, that was awhile ago. Thanks for helping to make this a better article.
Oak Ridge National Laboratory has developed a surface preparation method to improve joining carbon composites with aluminum, with potentially far-reaching ramifications for high-volume industrial applications.
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