Bioplastics are a highly researched and in-trend topic, and they might be the answer to the plastic problem.
Plastic products are self-explanatory; they are plastic, meaning that they can be shaped and molded into any form when soft. This quality, when combined with the fact that plastics get rigid when set and are durable and long-lasting, makes plastic an indispensable part of modern society.
Plastic has found its way into every aspect of daily life, from food packaging to clothes. But plastic has disastrous environmental consequences, and thus, the need to solve the ever-growing plastic crisis has never been more vital.
So to understand how Bioplastics could be a viable alternative to petroleum-based plastics, let us understand what bioplastics are.
What are Bioplastics?
Bioplastics are a type of plastic made from natural resources such as vegetable oil, starch, cellulose, and algae. In 1926, Maurice Lemoigne, a French researcher, discovered the first known bioplastic polyhydroxy butyrate, or PHB. Bioplastics are made by converting the sugar present in plants and microorganisms into polylactic acids (PLAs). NatureWorks is one of the world’s leading bio-plastics manufacturers, selling 1 billion pounds of PLAs in 2014.
Bioplastics can potentially form a significant part of a circular economy. A circular economy is simply a new economic concept that follows the principles of “make, use, reuse and recycle” rather than “make, use, dispose of.” Bioplastics save 66% of the energy during manufacturing as compared to traditional plastics. It also reduces the number of greenhouse emissions by up to 25%. Bioplastics are mostly compostable, which means they decay into harmless, organic materials in the soil.
But on the other hand, as bioplastics are largely made from crops such as corn and maize, the land that could be used to grow food is being used to grow plastic which could contribute to the growing food scarcity crisis around the world. While bioplastics are degradable, they are not easily recyclable. “You need to collect them, and you need to send them to composting, then only it will degrade,” says research associate professor Ramesh Padamati from Trinity College, who researches bioplastics. This proves to be a challenge for resource-deficient and economically poor countries.
There are different types of bioplastics, based on the various natural sources that they are derived from.
Types of Bioplastics
Since bioplastics are still a comparatively new field, there are no fixed types of bioplastics as they are being heavily researched and modified.
But there are some commonly used and accepted bioplastics such as:
Starch-based bioplastics: Starch is a non-toxic substance that becomes paste-like and flexible when heated. To make it “plastic” in nature, two biopolymers (PLAs and PHBs) are added to the starch mixture. Starch is widely considered the most practical material for bioplastics as it is cheap, abundant, and renewable.
Cellulose-based: Cellulose is the major substance in the walls of plant cells; it is the material that helps plants remain stiff and upright. When modified, cellulose becomes thermoplastic, but making bioplastic from only cellulose is expensive. But, when cellulose fibers are added to starch, it can improve its mechanical properties and increase its water resistance capacity.
Protein-based: Protein sources include wheat gluten, casein (a protein found most commonly in milk), and soy. The processing of soy protein is expensive; hence, it is combined with other biopolymers to improve its functionality.
Algae-based bioplastics: PLAs, the most common material used in bioplastic production, are derived from algal metabolites. Blue-green algae (Cyanobacteria) are also being widely studied for their PHA accumulation.
Other bioplastics include bio-derived polyethylene (polyethylene is the most common plastic today) obtained from the fermentation of agricultural feedstocks and lipid-derived polymers synthesized from plant and animal-derived fats and oils.
Since bioplastics are considered as an alternative to traditional, petroleum-based plastics, they must perform the same functions as traditional plastics.
Where Are Bioplastics Being Used?
Bioplastics can be utilized in the same way as traditional plastics. This includes and is not limited to:
Packaging of all types and shopping bags
Household products such as tableware and cutlery, cosmetics, toys, and electronic devices and appliances.
Fashion industry – including shoes.
There are many companies around the world that specialize in bioplastics manufacturing, and the number is only growing day by day. Some of the leading global companies include:
NatureWorks – US and Thai-state owned joint company
Biocleave – UK
Novamont – Italy
Corbion – Netherlands
Mitsubishi Chemicals – Japan
Avantium – Netherlands
Truegreen – India
Earthsoul – India
With so many companies investing time, effort, and money into the production of bioplastics, it is safe to say that bioplastics have a great scope and high market value in the coming years.
The Future of Bioplastics
Extensive research is being carried out in the manufacturing of polymers synthesized by microorganisms and various processes of recycling plastics.
In conclusion, despite all the drawbacks and cons, bioplastics seem to be a promising alternative to petroleum-based plastics. As it is a technology that is still in its developing stage, there is much scope for improvement and advancement. The implementation of infrastructure and disposal methods is crucial if bioplastics enter the market on a large scale.
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