Are Bioplastics Really a Better Option?

Plastics are a part of everyday modern life. They’re in toys, clothing, household products, furniture, packaging, and the list goes on. But the manufacture and disposal of plastics can be extremely harmful to the environment, and the products themselves detrimental to human health.

Multiple studies have shown that certain chemicals—like phthalates which are used to make plastics versatile—are big offenders.

Phthalate softeners, commonly used as plasticizers in the manufacture of vinyl flooring and wall coverings, food packaging, and medical devices, are absorbed by the human body and have been found to alter hormones or have other potential health risks. Vinyls containing phthalates also emit high amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere during manufacture, increasing greenhouse gases.

The disposal of these plastics can be equally harmful. Plastic debris, laced with chemicals and often eaten by marine animals, can injure or poison wildlife. Invasive species can use floating plastic waste, which can survive for thousands of years in water, as mini transportation devices and disrupt habitats. And plastic buried in landfills can leach chemicals that spread into groundwater.

It’s not surprising then that bioplastics—the more environmentally sound and health friendly alternative to traditional petrochemical plastics—are gaining traction among manufacturers and consumers alike. Pepsi is experimenting with potato and orange peels in the manufacture of bioplastics, while competitor Coca-Cola makes plastic beverage bottles that are 30 percent plant-based. Toyota uses bioplastics in its car interiors.

The plastics market as a whole is expected to grow 5.95 percent by 2018, due in large part to the increased demand from the medical industry. At the same time U.S. demand for bio-based and biodegradable plastics (not all bioplastics are biodegradable) is set to climb at a 20 percent annual pace through 2016 to 550 million pounds, according to a study by Ohio-based research company Freedonia Inc.

Increased regulation of everyday plastic products such as plastic bags is forecast to stimulate a rush for starch-based bioplastics, while bio-based versions of plastics such as polyethylene and polypropylene are expected to be the fastest growing market in coming years.

Meanwhile, manufacturers with sustainability goals around carbon footprint are already seeing significant benefits from bio-based plastics. Material science company Teknor Apex Co., which brought phthalate-free bio-based plasticizers to market in 2012, claims its product can reduce CO2 emissions by 41 percent over traditional plasticisers.

Fraunhofer UMSICHT, an exhibitor at this year’s International Green Week biotechnology innovation trade fair in Berlin, Germany, is also focused on developing a new line of bioplastics aimed at reducing CO2 emissions.

“Generally, using bio-based components helps in reducing carbon dioxide emissions connected to materials production,” says Stephan Kabasci, project manager at Fraunhofer UMSICHT.

“Some plastics, like PVC contain from 25 to 45 percent of softener in the final product formulation. Using bio-based plasticizers can thus reduce the CO2 emissions of products considerably.”

Fraunhofer’s goal is to develop a bio-based plasticizer that can be used in the same way as petrochemical plastics with little disruption to the manufacturing process.

“No changes will have to be made in the machinery used by plastics manufacturers, except for slight tweaks in the processing parameters in order to meet the eventually modified composition of the material,” Kabasci concludes.

But perhaps a more significant motivating factor in moving away from traditional plastics, for both manufacturers and consumers, is the possible harmful effects of phthalate softeners and the resulting regulation surrounding their use.

In February, the National Institutes of Health published a damning article linking phthalates to male infertility, and earlier this month the U.S. government expanded the prohibition on the manufacture, distribution, and importation of certain products containing phthalates. The new legislation is especially targeted at child care products (a ban on phthalates in children’s toys was implemented by the U.S. in 2008).

Europe is following suit, and in fact, Western Europe is the largest regional consumer of bioplastics, using 212,000 metric tons, equal to over half of the total global demand.

Drawbacks to bioplastics

Despite the increased demand for bioplastics, research company Freedonia says they are still only expected to make up less than 1 percent of the total plastics market in 2022. Why?

  • Bioplastics are 20 to 100 percent more expensive. Petrochemical plastics are currently much cheaper to produce in part because the industrial processes for making this type of plastic has become so efficient.
  • Bioplastics are not always environmentally friendly. Use of fertilizer and pesticides on plants used in bioplastics, plus the conversion of forests to agricultural land counterbalances the benefits.
  • Disposal of bioplastics is problematic. Not all bioplastics decompose. Very few can be composted by consumers in a regular backyard compost bin. Most need industrial composting. And if the bioplastic is compostable it can release toxic chemicals or methane as it breaks down. Methane is a more harmful greenhouse gas than CO2.

Next big thing in bioplastics could be shrimp

Harvard’s Wyss Institute have developed a method to carry out large-scale manufacturing of everyday objects like cell phones, food containers and toys, using a fully degradable bioplastic derived from shrimp shells.

Do you think bioplastics have a future?

Nancy Pardo and Michelle Millier contributed to this article.

Image: Thirsy by Jari Schroderus on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND)

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