Bothered and bewildered over bioplastics

November 19, 2015

It seems that there's much confusion over bioplastics. There are biodegradable plastics, landfill-degradable plastics, oxobiodegradable plastics (that degrade in the open environment), compostable plastics that require composting in a commercial composting facility with the proper microbial action and temperatures. . . . Meanwhile, accusations of greenwashing proliferate, as various bioplastic producers duke it out over whose bioplastic is greener, further complicating the issue.

Stuart Miles
Image courtesy Stuart Miles/

Both PlasticsToday's European reporter Karen Laird and myself have written about ECM Biofilms and that company's unsubstantiated environmental claims about its products: An additive that would promote degradation of plastics "in a landfill within nine months." I'm not so sure I'd be touting that my material will degrade in a landfill in nine months. That's as long as it takes a human woman to develop and have a baby!

I also have to ask, why do you even want to spend the money to purchase an additive to make plastic degrade in a landfill, when that plastic could be incinerated and the BTUs captured for energy? Or perhaps recycled into new products? I can't even fathom why a company would spend time and money to develop an additive that would cause plastics to degrade in a landfill, when a landfill is the absolute last place on the planet that we should put plastic!

Professor Emeritus Igor Catic of the University of Zagreb, Croatia, has pointed out to me in several papers he has written that all plastics are bioplastics because all plastics are derived from natural substances (petroleum and natural gas, which come out of the earth) and are combined with various chemicals in an industrial process to produce the type of plastic resin desired. Even the misleadingly named bioplastics need to be industrially processed with chemicals to cause the molecular chains to form and create a material with the properties needed in order to be injection molded, blowmolded, extruded or otherwise processed industrially to make products.

Catic notes that one of the first bio materials was galalith, based on casein (the main protein in milk), a process that is "more than six centuries old," said Catic. [A new report, "Milk Casein and Caseinates Market," notes that milk casein and caseinates perform multiple functions and act as emulsifiers, binders, viscosity enhancers and heat stabilizers. They have a wide range of applications in food and non-food industries, which makes it easy to see why casein would be used in the making of plastic.] Another popular product from the 19th century is celluloid made from cellulose nitrate, alcohol, fillers and pigments.

Globally, in 2014 more than 99% of plastics used were fossil-fuel derived plastics, with bioplastics representing only 0.2% of global production, according to data Catic obtained from PlasticsEurope. He pointed out that plastics should not even be termed synthetic because all plastics are bioplastics, as the "raw materials, such as oil, natural gas or coal" are biologically based, "the pure products of nature." For example, writes Catic, one of the first fossil fuel-derived plastics was "phenol-formaldehyde. "Phenol was first extracted from coal tar, but

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