Everything I need to know about bio-plastics
In the last two decades or so, plastic had perhaps received the greatest criticism among all commonly used components. Now the reasons can be many and chief among them obviously are its excruciatingly slow rate of degradation (some may persist for hundreds or even thousands of years), and the environmental concerns, including the release of toxic pollutants. And in a retort to these problems, a new type of plastic is now being conceived, known as bio-plastics or organic plastics.
Basically, they are a form of plastics derived from renewable biomass sources, such as vegetable oil, corn starch, pea starch, or microbiota, rather than fossil-fuel plastics which are derived from petroleum. Most of them are biodegradable (though not all), and importantly they do have the potential to contribute to our sustainable future.
1. Waste chicken feathers converted into bioplastic:
Dr. Yiqi Yang, from the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, have ingeniously conceived of a new type of bioplastic made out of waste chicken feathers. Now the advantage of this conception is the relative abundance of one of its components i.e. feathers, as proven by this statistical figure – annually, United States alone generates more than 3 billion pounds (appox. 1.36 billion kg) of chicken feathers. The bulk part of it is either processed into animal feed or simply discarded.
2. 100 percent plant-based ‘edible’ plastic:
Melbourne based bio-plastic manufacturer Plantic has come up with a remarkable and rather convenient conception in the form of fully plant based bio-plastics, which can easily degrade in water in just about 20 seconds! The plastics are composed from starch (available from corn); while their paints are also totally non-toxic and derived from natural plant materials (which actually make them pretty much edible). The only downside to this crucial technology can be the presence of humidity and moisture in the air.
3. Making bio-plastics from potatoes!
Plastic from potatoes is set to be the new rage in the ‘green’ market, according to a report put forth by University of Maine’s Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center. Composed from the root portion of the potatoes, such plant based plastics can also prove to economically viable in the long run, as they can be acquired as a by-product of the mushrooming potato chips industry. Moreover, they can be used in various applications, like carpeting, upholstery fabric and recyclable plastic bottles.
4. Growing Plastic in Grass:
Massachusetts-based Biotech Company, Metabolix, has conceived the naturalistic way to manufacture Polyhydroxybutyrate (PHA), a form of bio-plastic. This unique and rather advanced technology literally calls for growing plastics out of leaves of perennial plants such as switch grass. Dubbed as Mirel, such plastics can be used for a plethora of products like credit cards, plastic containers and even vehicle components.
5. Researchers engineer genes of plants to grow raw materials for green plastic:
Extraordinary situations call for extraordinary measures, and that is exactly what researchers from Brookhaven National Laboratory and Dow Agro-Sciences have come up with, in the face of plastic pollution. They have successfully managed to bio-engineer a relative of cabbage with high content of omega-7 fatty acid. Omega-7 fatty acid is one the major components of plastic, and with the naturalistic solution of ‘cultivating’ it, genetically modified seeds can be now be used as a renewable source of chemicals. That in turn can then be used to make greener plastics in the long run.
6. New plant fatty acid-derived plastic can be broken down to diesel-like liquid fuel:
New York’s Polytechnic University researchers led by Professor Richard Gross have contrived a new type of advanced fuel-latent plastic. It has been derived from the components comprising the fatty acids of plants. And the crucial part is that it can be broken down into a diesel-like liquid fuel, which can have significant industrial uses, especially in relation to generators and transportation.
There are a myriad of benefits that can be associated with bio-plastics, namely its convenient virtue of biodegradability (the majority of bio-plastics are biodegradable). The positive quotient on environment, especially in relation to the naturalistic compositions of bio-plastics can make a significant contribution to the state of our overall sustainability. Studies have showed that bio-plastics represent a whopping 42 percent reduction in carbon footprint, because it relies much less on fossil fuel as a carbon source and also introduces fewer, net-new greenhouse emissions if it bio-degrades. Moreover some of the bio-plastic conceptions can even accentuate upon the quality of soil when used in a local scale.
The low down:
The main concern could be over the use of genetically modified organisms (GMO), as there are always possibilities that GMOs could introduce new allergens into the procedures. Adding to that, the whole familiar recycling system has to undergo serious changes. An apt example would be – plastics like PET do not mix with PLA (Polylactic acid plastics from cane sugar or glucose); yielding unusable recycled PET if consumers fail to distinguish the two in their sorting. And lastly, there are some real concerns that the creation of a global bio-economy could contribute to an accelerated rate of deforestation, if not regulated effectively.
As already mentioned, the usage of bio-plastics on a massive scale can reduce our emissions by significant levels. Plastic has always proven to be a bane to a sustainable environment, but much because of its economic viability and malleability it has lingered and rather thrived. Now bio-plastic could be that all important alternative to conveniently replace plastic. They can substantially deplete the quantity of hazardous waste caused by oil-derived plastics, albeit in a controlled state. This would certainly add a new ‘green’ dimension to our modern packaging industry, which forms a crucial element of our overall economy.