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Sustainable Feedstock for Plastic Production

Posted on March 30th, 2017 by in New Materials & Applications

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We’ve looked before at the problems of plastic manufacture, and plastic waste in particular. In a report recently published, the European Commission (EC) has made the development of a roadmap for plastics a high priority.

One of the central aims of that work will be to eliminate, or reduce at the very least, the use of fossil fuels as plastic feedstock. And that is something we’re going to explore a little in this post.

The Benefits of Bioplastics

Decoupling plastic production from fossil fuels could have a huge impact in a number of different areas.

  • Conserving non-renewable mineral resources – fossil fuels take geological time frames to produce and we are currently using them up very fast.
  • Reducing greenhouse gas emissions – a 25% reduction in petroleum feedstock (using organic feedstock instead) could decrease greenhouse gas emissions by the same amount as produced by 16.5 million passenger cars one year.
  • Sending less waste to landfill – Bioplastics are often biodegradable, while  traditional plastics can stay in landfills forever (landfills are one of the largest man-made methane gas sources).

The bioplastics (also sometimes called sustainable polymers) industry focuses on the production of plastics from non-fossil-fuel feedstock, usually organic materials such as plant fibers (flax, jute, hemp), wood and starches.

Some of these alternative materials are by-products of industries that use organic plant materials. Often this material is seen as an unwanted waste product. For example, reclaimed wood fibres from mills or agricultural waste from farms can be used as a feedstock.

These materials can nearly always be recycled. Some of them may even be composted, which can be used to directly provide energy to plants, regenerating the feedstock again as part of a cyclical process.

Bioplastics can be made entirely from organic feedstock, or from a mixture of biomaterials and traditional plastics (“biocomposites”), which is currently a more common approach.

Bioplastic Production – Process, Cost and Quality

The process of making sustainable polymers can vary widely, depending on the particular organic feedstock.

One example, PHB (poly-3-hydroxybutyrate) is a biopolymer which has characteristics similar to the familiar polypropylene. It is produced by bacteria which process corn starch, glucose, or wastewater and can be made into a transparent film that is thermally stable up to 130 degrees Celsius. PHB biodegrades without leaving any plastic residue.

While bioplastic production costs are currently higher than those of traditional plastics, the difference is caused in part by the large infrastructure that already exists for the latter. However, some of this infrastructure can be readily converted, since some bioplastics such as Polylactide (PLA) and bio-polyethylene can be processed using standard equipment.

Product quality is a common concern about bioplastics. But technology has advanced very quickly in this area over recent years so that now, a lot of conventional plastic products (furniture, bedding, cups, plates cutlery, textiles, bags, mobile phone cases) can be replicated to a similar standard using equivalent sustainable feedstock.

In many cases, using bioplastics may even improve product quality, Starch, for example, can make a plastic softer to the touch, and wood or natural fibres can give a more natural look.

Along with recycling, alternative plastic feedstock will be a major focus of the EU initiative on plastics over the next few years. Have you had encountered products made out of these bioplastics in your day to day life yet?


 

All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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