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Digging for New Material: Bioplastics are Growing Into the Green Economy

As the Economist wages the largest debate about bio-fuels in memory, another market opportunity appears to be showing itself in the bio production space as well. Bio plastics have been sprouting up in various applications, but a recent study puts the total market of green packaging at $43.9Billion by 2013. The highest growth gains in this market will be in bio plastics for reasons of price stability and increased capacity the report said. Bio plastics will, it is reported, preform at an annual growth rate of thirteen percent. This spells big news for an industry which currently holds only about .1% percent market share.

Part of the reason for this growth will be due to policy changes which restrict the use of some of the most environmentally damaging materials, but the largest effect seems to be coming from packaging producers themselves. Corporate social responsibility leader Coca Cola has developed a new bottle which is composed of around thirty percent bio plastics with the intended goal of developing a one hundred percent renewable option in the future. Likewise, Wal-Mart has begun sourcing toys and children’s goods made from bio plastics.

The draw is that decomposition coupled with less petroleum based material seems to be better environmentally, but some counter this analysis. According to the Guardian Newspaper, foods producers in the UK such as Innocent Drinks have chosen to stop using bio plastics due to lack of recycling options for the products at present. Likewise there have been claims that bio plastics can be environmentally damaging on par with their petroleum based counterparts. Recent innovations have made it so less energy is needed to create bio plastics and thus it seems the growth of the sector makes environmental sense. Followers of Bill McDonough’s cradle to cradle concept often tout the re-usability and closed-loop life cycle of these products, while others derided their historically slow decomposition rates.  Some applications in the burgeoning bio plastics space are:

A company coming out of Cornell has decided to make biodegradable plastic out of carbon dioxide. This would eliminate carbon dioxide while creating a biodegradable product (two birds one stone). Another application is for ocean-going container ships which could replace current plastics with ones that breakdown via hydrolysis, thus allowing much more cargo room aboard after plastics are used and jettisoned. This blog has reported on how the U.S. military is introducing bio plastics in order to reduce trash transport on the battlefield. There are also hopes to dissolve these plastics into bio-diesel thus adding to the fuel tanks. Finally, for those of us who are not planning to be in battle soon, two Japanese firms have developed bio plastics for demanding applications, one is mixed with fibers of natural plants in order to make the historically weaker bio plastics stronger and another company has found a way to make these materials more heat resistant. In all this seems to be a moment when the technology is overcoming previous hurdles, potentially launching it into new applications as yet unknown for biological materials.

Some problems are still being worked out, like making sure biomass is farmed in such a way which isn’t demanding on agricultural system, similar to issues being dealt with by ethanol producers. In total though, bio plastics seem to represent more good than ill, and along with the high learning curve, the growth curve for biodegradable and biological plastics will likely increase as well. It is hoped more products will integrate bio plastics in full or in part as these curves continue skyward, like the plants they derive from.

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