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When it comes to plastics, what is possible may not be practical

A recent blog post written by my colleague Karen Laird quoted the Stora Enso CEO, who said that "anything that you do with fossil-based materials, you'll be able to do out of a tree." My response: Not hardly. Of course, there's more to it than that. Trees are an important source of carbon sequestration: They take in CO2 and release oxygen, as any amateur scientist knows. For that we're all grateful.

A recent blog post written by my colleague Karen Laird quoted the Stora Enso CEO, who said that "anything that you do with fossil-based materials, you'll be able to do out of a tree." My response: Not hardly. Of course, there's more to it than that. Trees are an important source of carbon sequestration: They take in CO2 and release oxygen, as any amateur scientist knows. For that we're all grateful. But because plants store carbon, they release that carbon when they are cut and processed, or as they die naturally.

There are certainly plenty of trees. In the U.S., forestry experts estimate that there are more trees today than there were when the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock. There are a number of reasons for that, including better forestry management by large lumber companies who know how to keep the forests clear of undergrowth and how to maintain the forests for proper harvesting. It's only in recent decades that forest fires have been contained and extinguished; throughout history, when a forest caught fire because of lightening, the forests burned until they ultimately ran out of fuel or were extinguished by rainfall.

Estimates of global tree counts using satellite imagery, as well as ground-based measurements from around the world, were provided by a team led by researchers at Yale University, [who] created the first globally comprehensive map of tree density and published their findings in the journal Nature on Sept. 2 of this year. "A previous study that drew on satellite imagery estimated that the total number of trees was around 400 billion. The new estimate of 3.04 trillion is multiple times that number, bringing the ratio of trees per person to 422 to 1," said a Wall Street Journal article.

So, the issue is not whether or not we will have enough trees to process into plastic, but rather why would we want to? Has anyone crunched the numbers to see what the "actual" carbon footprint might be to make plastic from trees vs. fossil fuels? Additionally, what will it cost to make plastic from trees? Has anyone crunched the numbers to do a cost comparison? (Don't look at me! I only do words, not numbers!) Also, will bioplastic made from trees be just another niche product that is not suitable for the extremely large quantities of resins needed globally each day, like many other bioplastics?

The big question is, will consumers pay more for products made from plastics made from trees? That might be a bit tricky. Currently, producers of plastic materials and products that are supposed to be "degradable," or "biodegradable," or compostable have a hard time convincing potential buyers (including consumers) that it's worth the extra cost to have, for example, a plastic bag that will biodegrade out in the open in a dubious timeframe of "less than a year."

An industry associate recently sent me an article written by William F. Banholzer and Mark E. Jones. At that time, they were both chemical engineers at the Dow Chemical Co. in Midland, MI. I got acquainted with Banholzer in 2008 after hearing his plenary presentation at an ANTEC conference, and was duly impressed with his knowledge and his commonsense (i.e., scientific) approach to the issues surrounding biofuels. Banholzer, who has since left Dow, is currently a Research Professor, Honorary Fellow Chemistry Department, Senior Advisor, Wisconsin Energy Institute.

The article, "Chemical Engineers Must Focus on Practical Solutions," published on behalf of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers online July 15, 2013, in the Wiley Online Library, contains some commonsense advise that the plastics industry as a whole needs to consider when innovating materials such as bioplastics.

Banholzer and Jones said that chemical engineering is a field distinguished by "its ability to turn invention in innovation" using "sound engineering principles" that "enable economical manufacturing of materials that define a society's standard of living." The authors point to Henry Ford, who didn't just invent the automobile: "He applied engineering skills to make economical automobiles." Ford, Edison and Bell, the authors pointed out, did not invent the automobile, the electric light bulb or the telephone—"they were innovators who found a way to make inventions practical, reliable and economical. They brought these ideas to commercial production, creating innovations that people wanted to buy and could afford."

Inventing for the "masses," as one plastics inventor of the pultrusion process told me many years ago over lunch at an SPI meeting, is key to the success of any product. "Invent for the masses, eat with the classes; invent for the classes, eat with the masses," he said. Niche materials like biomaterials are not "mass" applicable in the millions-of-tons range. Which is why people don't want to pay exponentially more for something made from these materials.

Banholzer and Jones write, "Simply put, innovation is perfecting inventions to create value that people will pay for. Invention is certainly important, but innovation is exceptionally challenging, since it is society, not the scientific community, that ultimately determines the importance of a new discovery."

I agree with Banholzer and Jones, and I might add that any new discovery, like successful plastic invention or innovation, must be scientifically proven to actually be an optimal product that offers a better, cheaper and truly "greener" alternative solution and something for which people (or companies) are willing to pay. The conclusion of the authors' article that focused on biofuels can also be applied to bioplastics: "We as scientists and engineers have to be part of the discussion and . . . the solution. There are troubling trends, some even presented in this journal. Work done under the banner of sustainability show that we can use renewable feedstocks without thought to whether practical benefits truly result. Researchers get so caught up in proving something is possible that they forget to ask whether it will be practical." (Italics are mine.)

At the end of the day, we can conclude that plastic made from trees might be "possible" but will it be practical from a scientific and economical perspective? Will using trees to make plastic materials be any better for the environment (given all the other factors that contribute to our ever-changing climate) than using naturally occurring fossil fuels?

I rather like a statement made by Jon Huntsman Senior many years ago when I sat in his office in Salt Lake City as we talked about the fast food industry's switch from EPS clamshell containers to paper containers: "Use old dinosaurs, not new trees."

TAGS: Materials
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