An inconvenient truth about bioplastics

CloudsA few years ago, I wrote a blog post inspired by an article authored by William Banholzer, formerly of Dow Chemical Co. and now a research professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Banholzer has been one of my favorite people ever since I heard him speak at an ANTEC conference a number of years ago. In his article, “Practical limitations and recognizing hype,” published in Energy & Environmental Science in 2012, Banholzer noted that people buy into hype, especially when it comes to energy and how we can make and use it. I found many similarities in his commentary on energy with plastics, and industry’s struggle between what’s practical and cost-effective versus what's hype.

Banholzer believes that “large swathes of the public lack a basic understanding of energy issues. They also want to believe that a miracle will happen so that our lifestyles won’t have to change for us to improve the environment and reduce energy use.”

I’d say that is the same problem when it comes to plastics—a lack of basic understanding by the general public of polymer materials.

A few years ago when Banholzer was still working for Dow, a colleague told him that she was going to purchase a solar-powered Prius. Reluctantly, Banholzer told her that “the solar energy falling on a car the size of a Prius would never allow it to practically operate,” he wrote in his article. “The solar energy simply isn’t sufficient to power a car.”

People love to believe in “miracles,” noted Banholzer, and “they also believe the hype when they see an ad for a car with solar cells on the roof. What the ad doesn’t tell consumers is that these solar cells “are only used to power a fan to keep the car cool on particularly sunny days.”

That’s probably why millions of people believe that we can actually operate a manufacturing economy on wind and solar, and that there will be no unintended consequences to erecting towering wind turbines or covering thousands of acres of the desert with solar panels, both of which kill thousands of birds each year. But never mind—companies that own these facilities have “kill permits” from the EPA to exempt them from fines for killing wildlife.

It is probably also why people believe that some magic formula will come along that will make plastic disappear in just a few weeks because it’s “bio-plastic.” It’s natural, so naturally it will disappear into the Earth.

Most of what we hear about wind and solar energy is hype. It’s a technology fad. Many people like the idea that we can make plastic out of trees, algae and corn. And, yes, we can. But is it practical? Not on a large scale, at least, because most of those ideas continue to be applied to niche products.

The same can be said of bioplastics—it's a technology fad.

Technology fads, says Banholzer, “develop when what is possible becomes confused with what is practical.” The road to profitable, truly innovative technology is littered with technology fads. Banholzer notes that biofuels is one: “I believe that the hype surrounding biofuels has caused many in the area to overlook obvious issues that make cellulosic ethanol impractical.” Understanding why cellulosic ethanol has failed to live up to the hype can be found in the answer to four questions:

  1. How much biomass is available?
  2. How much will it cost?
  3. How much will the conversion technologies cost?
  4. How much more are we willing to pay for the resulting fuel?

The answer to that last question is pretty obvious: Surveys show that, while consumers want products that are eco-friendly, they will not pay more for them. “The answer to these questions convinced me that cellulosic biofuels would not deliver the value that the hype around them promised,” said Banholzer.

Most of the ideas that scientists have come up with in the energy sector concerning biomass are problematic. “Biomass is not a concentrated resource,” said Banholzer. “Widely distributed, it is low in both density and energy density. It is present almost everywhere, but never in amounts that rival fossil reserves.”

For those and other reasons, biomass is not a good form of energy for transportation, and cannot compete with coal or natural gas as a generator of electricity, Banholzer added.

I’m assuming the same holds true for the use of biomass to produce polymers. Sure, there are lots of biomass opportunities—some of them are even free for the taking, as Banholzer pointed out in his paper. However, he also noted that the “capital for biomass conversion” to energy (or to polymers, I’m guessing) “is still projected to be, at a minimum, over double the capital requirement” for alternatives such as fossil fuels.

Thus, “the lack of discernable advantage keeps capital from flowing into cellulosic opportunities, and rightly so,” said Banholzer. “Industry has an obligation to create a return on invested capital. Compelling financial opportunities in energy generally are awash in capital.”

With the availability of oil and natural gas—especially natural gas—plastics provide a good return on capital investment and have a clear value proposition. You can’t say that about polymers made from cellulosic materials.

Then there is the question that Banholzer asks about energy that those of us in the plastics industry ask about bioplastics: How much are we willing to pay? “The answer resides more in social science than technology. Higher raw material costs plus higher capital means high cost to the consumer,” said Banholzer. That is something that the plastics industry knows all too well. People want everything to be green. Consumers want plastics to disappear after use, but they are not willing to pay the price for products made from biomaterials such as algae, switch grass, sugar cane or corn.

Banholzer said that while he believes science should move forward and make progress in various energy forms, options for these advances must rely on making “practical improvements to materials and practical engineering improvements.” He concludes by noting that there are currently methods such as wind and solar to “supplement our electrical generation capability,” with practical being the operative word in this conversation.

“As we struggle with a national debt, the cost of healthcare and other pressing societal needs, we must be rigorous in separating hype around energy” [or around plastics] “from practical solutions that can improve our use of valuable . . . resources,” writes Banholzer.

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