November 24, 2006

BIOplastics: Biodegradable by-products of BIOconversion

Biomass conversion can be used to produce biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel, isolate hydrogen, and produce charcoal. But just as the growth of the oil industry led to the rapid development of the petroleum-based plastics industry, a huge industry in BIOplastics is expected to be developed from the by-products of biomass conversion. These products are especially attractive because of their ability to sequester carbon and biodegrade as soil nutrients.

Europe is leading in this field. With few landfills and high population density, the motivation to produce new products from biorefinery output is strong. At a recent European Bioplastics Conference in Brussels last week, Heinz Zourek, Director-General of DG Enterprise and Industry of the European Commission, emphasized the significance of bioplastics for sustainable development.

"Bioplastics contribute to climate protection, save fossil resources and create jobs in future-oriented sectors", stated Zourek. "We hope that bioplastics can increase their market share in Europe". Biobased and biodegradable plastics are among the most promising lead markets for innovations in Europe.

For more information on biodegradeable Bioplastics, refer to this article on the World Centric website.

Here are some excerpts from a recent article on Biopact Blog regarding the benefits of bioplastics...

A closer look at bioplastics
Biopact, 11/24/06

Bioplastics offer roughly the same advantages as biofuels: they are made from renewable agricultural feedstocks, they offer a direct alternative to their fossil fuel based counterparts (which have become expensive), and they are more or less carbon-neutral. Moreover, as with biofuels, bioplastics can be used to enhance the agricultural productivity of soils where growing crops is difficult. In principle, the use of bioplastics allows for an entirely closed loop and cradle-to-cradle design: when a bioplastic product is discarded as 'waste', it becomes 'food'(fertilizer) for new biomass from which new products can be made.

The first European Bioplastics Conference 2006 which took place this week in Brussels and which attracted considerable interest, offers an opportunity to focus on the green plastics a bit more in-depth.

Bioplastics represent a relatively new class of materials which have much in common with conventional plastics. What differentiates them is the use of renewable resources in their manufacture and the biodegradability and compostability of many bioplastics products.

Plastics, with their current global consumption of more than 200 million tonnes (EU approx. 40 mill. t) and annual growth of approx. 5%, represent the largest field of application for crude oil outside the energy and transport sectors. This 5% crude oil consumption may appear comparatively small, however it does emphasise how dependent the plastics industry is on oil.

The principle of sustainable development and the missing landfill in Europe are reasons for the introduction of the closed loop economy in the European Union. Products have to be produced and used resource conserving and have to be recovered after use, if they cannot be avoided at all. Landfill of waste is not allowed anymore. Therefore the question of disposal already comes up during the development of a product. If easy to dispose materials are used for the production, the disposal cost will decrease and in consequence also the over all product costs.

Short characterisation of recovery options for bioplastics:

• Thermal recovery: Using the high calorimetric value of the substance to produce heat and electricity (criteria of the legislation have to be met)
• Organic recycling (composting): The resulting compost is used to improve the soil quality and as a replacement of fertilisers
• Chemical recycling: Can be an option especially for polyester types like PLA or PHA. By chemical treatment the polymer chain can be de-polymerised, the resulting monomers can be purified and polymerised again. Sufficient amounts of source separated collected plastic waste is a pre-condition to apply this method. The same arguments apply for recycling back to plastics.

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Calvin Jones said...

I`m curious as to why we want bioplastics to be bio-degradable.

It just seems to tempting to have non-biodegradable plastics from biological materials.

The would effectively be a co2 pump out of the atmosphere and into landfill. I guess i`d rather see tonnes of solid and but inert waste in dumps or in curculation than in the atmosphere.

Calvin Jones said...

Hi Scott,

Thanks for the reply. I must say arguing against biodegradable products does make me wonder about my sanity. However, I think that I should give my thoughts there clearest representation so here are some comments on your comments.

1. ii) Interesting point about not havving to recover plastics to recycle, but I beleive this is done largely to recover large amounts of internalised energy...where will we get the energy for bioplastic production from? I imagine bioplastics are less energy intensive to produce...perhaps this tips the energy ballance.
ii)Good point. On the topic of carbon more later.

2. When you say polloute, do you mean leach chemicals? I imagine bioplastics could be designed not to leach toxic chemicals. Plastics are a problem for many reasons, perhaps it is worth distinguising between certain uses.

3.i) If you don't have space then I guess a biodegradable plastic is just what you are after.
ii)Not biodegradable plastics don't emitt methane or co2...biodegradable ones might. The methane is largely from food isn't it? I think most the methane is usually captured for the UK atleast. I guess the bioplastic concept as you see it goes along with incineration.

Finally: I'm still unsure of this idea, I think I could argue either side. The space for waste problem could be solved by increased recycling of bioplastics. My idea of sequestering carbon in landfill certainly dosent sound like an option in California...but perhaps elsewhere and perhaps bioplastics as building materials.

Anonymous said...


The state of California has passed a law, assembly bill number 2417, stating that the words biodegradeable, oxo-biodegradable, degradable, and every possible synonym for those words, in effect, belong to the corn-based plastics (PLA) industry. No biodegradable plastic made out of naphtha, an otherwise useless industrial byproduct, may be labeled biodegradable, nor any synonym thereof, may, given current technlogy, be called biodegradable, even if they do, in fact, biodegrade in one day longer than 120 days. This is true even if the biodegradable plastic alternatives are far more likely to biodegrade in a landfill that the corn based plastic alternative. The net effect of this is to increase the demand for corn based plastics. The result of making non-food items out of corn has driven a price spike in the world grain supply that threatens hundreds of millions of impoverished third world citizens with starvation.

A further effect of this is to deny the citizens of California the benefits of new technology that makes inexpensive, recyclable, disposable plastic products-garbage bags, shopping bags, plastic cutlery, straws, styrofoam cups and containers, deli containers, soda bottles, etc. etc. The corn based plastics cannot be recycled under in any existing system in place in California, whereas the naphtha based biodegradable plastic alternatives can. In fact, the recycling lobby is trying to ban corn based plastic bottles, because it gets confused with PET, and wrecks their recycled PET plastic batches.

Who is behind this? I can't prove it, but I strongly believe that Cargill Inc. and Dow Inc. have been working behind the scenes to create this spike in corn prices, with no concern whatsoever for the lives of hundreds of millions of people who struggle to find food every day. Cargill has acquired the 50 percent interest in Cargill Dow LLC previously 100% owned by Dow Chemical Co. and has renamed the company NatureWorks LLC. That's right, that friendly neighbor Dow that brought you napalm and Agent Orange. Cargill is a huge company that has a great interest in making things besides food out of corn-no matter how many millions of children in the third world starve to death as a result. Campaign contribution laws in this country are so lax that I don't think they even had to break the law to get away with this appalling tactic. So, Californians, the next time you wonder why biodegradable plastic items are so expensive in your state, and of such poor quality, my belief is that it's because of your legislature, your governor, Cargill Inc. and Dow Chemical Company, Inc.