This is a great idea. The fact that it uses non-food plant material is a real plus. It reminds me of the discussion around the rare earths in magnets discussion. There are often alternatives, and sometimes they are better. Good story.
I agree with naperlou, it's great that non-food plant based maaterials are being used. It shouldn't be an either/or as we develop more earth friendly plastics.
I can't wait to see how these hold up, especially in footwear and consumer electronics. One issue we've had over the years with eco-friendly materials is that they tend to breakdown too quickly. Consumers do not tolerate that! Or, can't handle the high heat needed in the assembly process.
@NadineJ: the article indicates that the the new bio-based plasticizers are actually more thermally stable than traditional plasticizers. So, at least in that regard, they should be an improvement.
By the way, the PVC is still the same old PVC. What's new are the plasticizers. By itself, PVC is igid; think of PVC plumbing pipe, for example. In order to make flexible PVC, chemicals called plasticizers are added. These chemicals behave like solvents, causing the polymer to soften and swell.
There are a number of health concerns about the phthalate plasticizers which are currently used in PVC. So, of course, non-phthalate plasticizers are a hot topic right now. I can imagine that bio-based non-phthalate plasticizers would be an even hotter topic -- especially if they are cheap! So this is quite a significant development.
On a side note: Louis Cappucci is correct that the chlorine in the PVC is ultimately derived from sea salt, but there's nothing special about that; you could say the same about anything which contains chlorine, such as the muriatic acid you buy at the hardware store. This is just a bit of spin. (It doesn't negate the significance of the new plasticizers, though).
In a related story, a tragic explosion last month which killed two people in a chemical plant in Germany may be opening the door to bio-based nylons. The explosion has tightened the supply of nylon-12, which is widely used in automotive fuel line applications.
Evonik, the company which had the explosion in Germany, has been suggesting its bio-based Vestamid Terra nylon grades as an alternative to the nylon-12 grades which have become temporarily unavailable. These new nylon grades are derived from castor oil.
Another supplier, Arkema, makes a nylon-11 which is also derived from castor oil, and may make an acceptable substitute for nylon-12. It was mentioned in a Design News article last year.
While the exposion in Germany was tragic, it will be interesting to see whether it leads to greater use of sustainable materials.
Dave, the idea seemed to be that since we're trying to get rid of phthalates, why not go even further and do it with bio-based materials? I also found it interesting that the company spokesman said their customers are very interested in sustainable solutions with low carbon footprints, so these customers can meet their own sustainability goals.
BTW, I also mentioned Arkema's castor-oil based nylon 11 in my recent bioplastics article:
Nice article, Ann. It's good to see materials coming out that offer improved features while also offering a greener composition. Is there also an end-of-life improvement? Are these materials easier to recycle, or do they breakdown better than traditional plastics because of their plant content?
Thanks, guys. I was especially happy to see bio-based solutions for vinyl, which is extremely prevalent in so many products. End-of-life issues were not addressed, but vinyl is not one of those plastics that is easily recycled: those that are are likely to be the less durable, single-use ones.
Rob, the presence of plant matter alone does not make a plastic biodegradable or compostable. That's an unfortunate, and common, misunderstanding, because it makes it seem like we're a lot closer than we are to such goals. The vast majority of bio-plastics right now have been designed to be drop-in replacements for petro-based ones, and are usually blended with them, as is this one. The result is not biodegradable or compostable unless it's designed to be so. (This one, also, is not a vinyl compound, but an elasticizer that mixes with vinyl to form that compound.) As Dave points out, the PVCs have not changed, only the additive that makes them flexible. The big deal here is getting rid of phthalates. EOL issues are an entirely different set of problems to solve.
I was guessing that might be the answer. We may be a ways away from the time that end-of-life environmental issues begin to become part of the equation. But it's bound to become important eventually, perhaps as an eventual add-on to waste management regulations.
Most of the effort to date has been on the front end, trying to make plastics out of bio-based, and now non-food bio-based, materials, and how to make ones that cost the same or less and have the same or better performance.
EOL issues are definitely a pressing matter and are certainly being considered: the new term is cradle-to-cradle. The thing is, making plastics recyclable--whether they're bio-based or not--involves a different set of technical challenges and also involve a lot of infrastructure issues, as I discovered doing the reporting for my upcoming May feature on making alternative fuels from recycled plastic.
Rob, waste regulations don't directly govern what gets manufactured, not yet anyway. The issues seem to be centered not so much on the regulation end but on the total infrastructure and interconnections among materials manufacturers, product manufacturers, waste management companies, sorters/recyclers (do they know how to handle different mixes? what recycling processes do they use?), materials manufacturers again (do they use their own recycled materials?) and industrial (if not consumer!) end-users.
You're right. Very little has been done to regulate what happens EOL. the RoHS regulations address it a tad. The effort to get lead out of solder was ultimately an EOL issue, since the EU's concern was lead slipping into the environment after the product was discarded. While many have complained the EU got its science wrong on that issue, the goal was eliminating the lead on the EOL side.
Rob, thanks for that--I know you've written a lot about green issues. That's a good point, that RoHS tried to address EOL issues a bit, although they were mostly aimed at the front end. But I'm not aware that any of those claims about wrong-headed EU science were ever upheld. Seems like that's always the initial response from manufacturers when told their products are unhealthy by a governing body, and they must change.
You're right that the issue of lead not leaching into the environment was not upheld. Most people think that putting lead into a product is a bad idea even if some manufacturers say it won't go into the environment.
I do have to hand it to the European Commission. When the group was challenged by IPC and others on some of the science during RoHS redo, the EC backed off on some items.
Since lead is a known poison, and in very small quantities, it's definitely not a good idea to let it leach into the ecosystem anywhere it might get into human or animal food or water sources. That's why it's no longer allowed in paint, although it still exists in many older houses where kids get sickened by it, and many workers are exposed to it in workplaces. Verifying whether a product containing lead will leach that lead into the environment is something that should be determined by objective, third-party sources not the product's manufacturer, which is highly likely to be biased.
Not sure just how lead got into the discussion, but there certainly is a lot of absolute hysteria about getting rid of it in all products. The solution there is actually obvious, which is: don't put the trash in landfills. The immediate recycling of metals and plastics, and possibly glass, would leave a mix that could be bio-decomposed to produce methane gas. The recovery of resources and energy would be one good way to prevent a lot of things from getting into the ecosystem, and possibly turn a profit at the same time. Of course, the recycling of mixed plasitcs does present a real challenge unless there is a cheap and low energy way to break them into more basic molecules.
The other option is sorting the plastics intothe different types, but that is quite a challenge for some of the types.
William, I agree that not putting things like lead, or even metals, into trash would be ideal. Lead came into the discussion because we were talking about front end and back end aspects of the cradle-to-cradle concept. As Rob and I were discussing in the comment thread below, there's no infrastructure set up yet to prevent that from occurring, and it's a complex one, indeed, that needs to be created.
BTW, biodecomposing anything to produce methane gas is not usually considered the best option, unless it's done in controlled circumstances by industrial composting facilities that recapture the methane.
One of my ideas many years ago was an enclosed system for "digesting" garbage and sewerage into dirt and methane. The only really new discovery needed was a bacteria that would work on more materials. My idea was that all of the mixing and decomposing would happen under a gastight inflatable dome type of structure that would keep all of the methane in so that it could be separated and collected. The big challenges are that it would take up lots of realestate, and that any maintenance would be a problem because of the explosive methane atmosphere. The logistics would get complicated because of the amount of land that it would take, which would locate it far from the cities, which is where all the garbage and sewerage are created.
William, that's a great idea, and it's already being implemented. Microbes for quickly digesting and biodegrading plastic have been recently discovered. Meanwhile, there are already industrial composting facilities connected to landfills that reduce the amount of methane gas, and some of them capture and reuse it in power production. Waste Management is one of the biggest:
My concept was that the entire organic portion of the municiple waste stream, in addition to the sanitary sewerage, would all be decomposing in this rather huge "digester" dome, and the production of methane would be encouraged so that it would produce enough to be commercially worthwhile. The ultimate goal would be to discover the mechanism that converts decomposing bio-matter into petroleum. The ultimate goal would be to do in just a few days what originally took a lot of years and quite a bit of pressure. The end result would be not only a sustainable source of fuel, but a way to dispose of our daily trash production.
Of course it all does sound "a bit utopian", perhaps, but the best part is that it should not infringe on people or limit personal freedoms, but rather provide enough enery without consuming resources.
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