The rise of waste-based plastics

22nd August, 2012 by Roger East

Can new refineries unlock the potential of bioplastics in a post-oil age?

Plastics from petrochemicals transformed design for consumer goods over the last 100 years – from the monobloc chair of the 1960s to Zaha Hadid's soft, supportive shoes for Brazilian brand Melissa. Now, designers are moulding the future using plastics from waste – and these new 'bioplastics' could soon be omnipresent.

By 2020, for instance, drinks industry giants Pepsi and Coca-Cola aim to be selling all their stuff in bottles made of agricultural waste. Others have stepped forward as pioneers: Ecover's cleaning products have been marketed for the last year in bottles from the world's largest producer of biopolymers, Braskem. This Brazilian company uses ethanol from purpose-grown sugarcane as a primary feedstock, but Effi Vandevoorde at Ecover expects to see more plastics from waste in the future, whether it's crop and forestry residues, discarded food or methane sourced in landfill sites.

Designers are moulding a future using plastics from waste

A new generation of biorefinery is emerging, says Vandevoorde, which will make the most of local leftovers. A biorefining centre in Antwerp, for instance, could ideally be based on the transformation of organic post-consumer waste from the food industries in this densely populated part of Europe – or even on sewage. DuPont, on the other hand, is looking into processes using corn residues in the American mid-West. And Malaysian firm Loji Pandu BioPlastik has been working with researchers at MIT on a fermentation process for converting palm oil waste, driven by bacteria already present in the crop. It's this sort of synergy – between plastics producers, users and local resources – that will really make investment in this industry worthwhile, for both business and the environment.

Vandevoorde is enthusiastic about the potential, though she sounds a warning about how quickly scale can be achieved. The drinks giants' 2020 target for all-bio bottles sounds like a tough one to her.

So what are the barriers to rolling bioplastics out more widely? There's demand, for a start. The chemical processes are tried and tested, but the petrochemical route is still the cheapest way to make most plastics, and the source of the overwhelming majority of our organic chemicals. But that can't continue to be the case, asserts Vandevoorde. One answer, she says, is to drive demand by developing more applications for these new plastics, and demonstrating their advantages.

What can they be used for, then? The team at MIT working with waste palm oil says the resulting bioplastic is not only very strong, but also biodegrades faster than any other type. There's a growing market for biodegradable plastics for use in food and drink containers, cutlery and other disposables, from tea bags to nappies to toothbrushes.

Others are keen to make the most of the unusual combination of strength, flexibility and low mass. Toyota already uses bioplastics for some internal trimmings in the Prius, such as the seat cushions and scuff boards, and has expressed interest in lightweight bioplastics that could be used in a car's body and frame.

Another potential barrier to wider development of the industry, says Vandevoorde, is excessive competition, with companies engaging in a sort of race for patents. Scientists, governments and corporations need to build partnerships with a commitment to sharing knowledge, she argues.

Ecover is already working with universities on questions identified by its Long Term Innovation Programme, but well-directed public funding will surely be vital, along with support for the right kind of sustainable industrial development.

The biology, chemistry, engineering, investment and innovation must all come together, in other words. If they can do so, the days of plastics from mineral oil could soon be over. – Roger East

Ecover is a Forum for the Future partner.

Photo: istockphoto/ thinkstock

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