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Are bioplastics still plastics?

There seems to be an ongoing debate with regard to bioplastics that, to my way of thinking, begins when we put the qualifier bio before the word plastics. Last week, Meredian Holdings Group Inc. (MHG; Bainbridge, GA), which claims to be "a leader in the production of polyhydroxyelkanoates (PHA)," announced that the company is sponsoring an expedition to raise awareness of plastic pollution on a global scale.

The From Florence to Singapore expedition began on Sept. 2 in Florence, Italy, and will travel through 30 countries, ending in Singapore by mid-December, 2015.

During the trip, travelers Cesare Poccianti and Michele Sabatini will converse with local organizations to understand how plastic plays a role in the everyday lives of people. Through the excursion, they will discuss with representatives the impact that petroleum-based plastics have on the environment after disposal, as well as record incidents of plastic pollution they see along the coastal, desert, mountain and jungle terrains.

It appears that one of the goals of this trip is to promote bioplastics as an environmentally superior alternative to plastics. But, isn't plastic plastic? Even with the bio qualifier, it's still plastic. MHG notes in the release that their PHA is "certified by Vincotte to biodegrade in freshwater, saltwater and soil within a year after end use," (the italics are mine). But will people have to look at all this thrown-out plastic stuff for a year until it gradually degrades into blobs and then into nothing?

I remember back in the 1990s, a guy here in Phoenix who developed a "biodegradable" golf tee. He convinced a golf course manager to let him test the tees for a year to see how the material would respond to the various climates of Phoenix. After about six months, the golf course manager had enough of the "biodegradable" tees, which had gradually degraded into white blobs all over the course, leaving an unsightly mess.

Biodegradable terminology is often used too fast and loose for some plastics experts, including Ramani Narayan, a professor of chemical engineering at Michigan State University, who spoke several years ago at an SPE Thermoforming Conference in Milwaukee. During his presentation on this topic, he railed against the improper use of the word biodegradable, and his comments resonated with many of the attendees.

"The problem is that people are claiming that all you do is put an additive into the plastics and the material will magically disappear," said Narayan. "Biodegradable is a misused and abused term. What we need is an end-of-life strategy."

Biodegradability, some plastics industry experts claim, will only allow people to blithely continue their "litterbug ways," believing that nature will take care of the mess. It never occurs to them that it may result in a bigger mess!

Narayan acknowledged that the pubic relations' strength of the word biodegradability carries a lot of weight. "All of this biodegradable stuff sounds good. The public loves it! But, I ask, in what environment will this degrade? Define environment. The word biodegradable means nothing."

Perhaps that's why California has taken a hard line against use of the word "biodegradability" in promotions touting bioplastics.

According to Narayan, too much flagrant "green washing" is occurring, with companies making eco-claims for products that cannot be backed up with facts. "There are so many misleading biodegradable claims in the marketplace. In high school, you'd be failed for creating a chart like this," he said as he held up a chart listing some of the so-called facts of biodegradability.

Perhaps Messrs. Poccianti and Sabatini would be better off using their expedition to teach people about recycling and waste-to-energy programs. After all, recycling is ubiquitous and people have developed a recycling mindset when it comes to plastics. They will have to teach people not to comingle MHG materials with recyclate. Recyclers dread the thought of bioplastics getting mixed in with the recyclate and gumming up the works. Perhaps MHG's research might be better spent finding a way to make its bioplastic materials compatible with non-bio materials so they can be recycled.

The release states that MHG has "recently become the world's largest producer of PHA, with the startup of the first commercial-scale fermenter." Several other fermenters are in the process of being installed, which will further add to their production. Along with DaniMer Scientific LLC, a specialist in the customization of biopolymer formulations that combine PHA, PLA and other biopolymers through a proprietary reactive extrusion process, MHG offers a comprehensive selection of biopolymers that support the company's core values of sustainable and renewable bioplastics.

But the release says nothing about the year-long mess in the environment—including lakes and oceans—while we wait for the materials to degrade, and why that's any better than teaching people not to litter. Nor is it better than waste-to-energy methods, which help capture plastics' fuel qualities.

In the end, plastic is plastic, no matter what environmentally correct prefix you add to it. And plastic is sustainable and it is recyclable. I agree with Narayan when he argued that the industry should channel more of its energy on recycling and waste-to-energy conversion, saying these are "the best use of plastics."

"Why is replacing petro-carbon with bio-carbon better?" he challenged the audience. "Carbon is carbon. There is organic carbon and inorganic carbon. It takes 10 years to turn an inorganic carbon into an organic carbon through biodegradability."

Plastic is plastic.

Bon voyage!

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