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.
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.
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?
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
A make-your-own Star Wars Sith Lightsaber hilt is heftier and better-looking than most others out there, according to its maker, Sean Charlesworth. You can 3D print it from free source files, and there's even a hardware kit available -- not free -- so you can build one just in time for Halloween.
Some next-generation bio-based materials are superior in performance to their petro-based counterparts, but also face some commercial challenges. This is especially true of certain biopolymers, adhesives, coatings, and advanced materials.
Cars and other vehicles, as well as electronics and medical devices, continue to lead the use cases for the new plastics products we've been seeing, as engineers design products for tougher environments.
LeMond Composites, founded by three-time Tour de France cycling champion Greg LeMond, is the first to license a new carbon fiber production method invented by Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) that's faster, cheaper, and greener.
This month will mark the launch of the SpeedFoiler, a super-fast, ultra-lightweight foiling catamaran that can fly short distances over water faster than other foiling designs, in part because of its carbon composite materials.
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